David Rolston calls himself an accidental entrepreneur. In 2002, after the firm that hired him to set up an optics lab suddenly closed, he worked on a startup in his Montréal basement. Today, the privately held company he co-founded, Reflex Photonics, employs 28 people. Rolston reflects on the tremendous amount of persistence and sacrifice it has taken to develop his company and his gratitude to the Canadian venture capital company, MSBi, now known as iNovia Capital, for investing in this endeavour. Reflex Photonics sells optical transceivers that help telecommunications companies increase the capacity of their networks; they offer customers technological benefits and the ability to build cost-effective, high-performance and scalable systems.
“We connect electrical equipment and servers with optical parts to increase the capacity of a network,” says Rolston, Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer. The optical transceiver module converts high-speed electrical signals into pulses of light.
Reflex Photonics is also working on optical connections between different parts inside computers, including processors and memories. The goal is to build the next generation of computers at a reasonable cost, but also to limit the increase in the power they require. “To go faster and faster is great, but normally that is attached to higher and higher power consumption. Optical technology is trying to nip that dilemma in the bud,” says Rolston.
In the 1990s, Rolston completed his Master’s and doctorate degrees at McGill University under the supervision of Dr. David Plant in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. An early boost came from CMC Microsystems, which helped support his thesis research on The design, layout, and characterization of VLSI optoelectronic chips for free-space optical interconnects.“CMC provided tutorials and the design tools to help lay out my chip. But the impact was more fundamental than the tools. It gave me the feeling that somebody in Canada cared and was trying to push technology forward. We were motivated to show the world what the next generation of technology looked like.’’
The economy in the 1990s, especially the tech sector, was booming. After he graduated, Rolston went to work at the Montreal-based Framatome Connectors Canada Inc. that had purchased the connectors unit of Nortel. He and ten others were given the task of setting up a multi-million dollar optics lab. Twenty-four months later, he was unemployed. The tech bubble had burst.
Rolston and his friend, Tomasz Maj, decided to start their own company. “We went back to McGill, and with the help of Professor Plant, we put a business plan together based on chip design and packaging”. The new company’s investors patiently backed Reflex and Rolston through a stressful but on reflection a satisfying journey.
Reflex Photonics is now based in Pointe-Claire, Québec and also has a small sales and marketing staff in California. The company has several flagship products including their unique and proprietary LightABLE™ integrated semiconductor/optical packaging technology. This technology addresses applications that require aggregate data rates in excess of 10 gigabits per second and with link distances ranging from a few centimetres to hundreds of metres.
The company continues to develop innovative products and compete in the marketplace. They expect their Light on Board® solutions to break through the current speed barriers of chip-to-chip communications and enable high-performance computers, networks and storage infrastructure to perform as never before.