Is This Really The Next Big Thing?

Ultrafast lasers have enormous promise--if more commercial uses can be unlocked

Slide Show >>

In 2003, a year after leaving his post as CEO of Time Warner Inc.'s (TWX ) AOL unit, Barry M. Schuler got a rare opportunity: He was invited to tour the Defense Sciences Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was recruiting entrepreneurs to help commercialize new technologies of interest to the Pentagon. But when DSO Director Michael Goldblatt began urging him to look into something called ultrashort pulse (USP) lasers, Schuler was reduced to nodding blankly--hoping Goldblatt didn't realize he was completely lost. "I didn't understand a word he was telling me," Schuler says.

He can be forgiven for not keeping up. Even in the geeky world of optoelectronics, lasers that emit ultrashort bursts of energy have largely been the domain of academic dreamers since they were invented in the late 1970s. Unlike conventional lasers found in DVD players, phone networks, and welding shops, USP lasers switch on and off at impossibly high rates--as quickly as once every femtosecond, or a billionth of a millionth of a second. Those concentrated blasts can obliterate any material by literally knocking electrons out of an atom's neighborhood. That means the lasers can do their job a few atoms at a time if need be, without heating up surrounding material. Since the zapped material is ablated into oblivion, there's nothing to heat up or melt.


After meeting Goldblatt, Schuler embarked on a six-month crash course that included buying a shelf full of optics texts and visiting a state-of-the-art lab at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Now CEO of a tiny laser startup called Raydiance Inc., Schuler wants to accelerate the migration of USP technology into the real world. While scientists have long known about such lasers' potential to accomplish all kinds of delicate tasks, from etching semiconductors and killing tumors to detecting and disabling roadside bombs, so far there are few commercial markets of any size. Several hundred machines have been shipped to clinics performing next-generation laser surgery to improve eyesight, and tech giants such as IBM use them to produce chips. But for the most part, USP lasers have languished in research labs, for the simple reason that they were too big and too expensive to find a market.

Raydiance has a twofold plan to change that. For starters, it is one of a half-dozen companies, including IMRA America and Fianium, that have brought USP products down to the size of window air conidtioners. That's a far cry from the previous state-of-the-art: bulky assemblies of lenses, mirrors, and electronic parts laid out on 10-ft. lab tables. Secondly, Raydiance has developed software to make it easier for all kinds of companies to apply the technology to their businesses, even if their tech team isn't populated with optical engineering PhDs. "It's the difference between operating a mainframe and a Macintosh," says Goldblatt, who has since left the Pentagon and joined Raydiance's board.

The frenetic Schuler, who runs a Napa winery in his spare time, has lined up impressive support. The company raised $25 million in venture funding, and Schuler has deftly exploited his A-list contacts. His board includes Goldblatt and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. "This could be the Next Big Thing," says an enthusiastic Bradley. "In 10 years, all surgeries could be done this way. This company could change the world."

Schuler's strategy is ambitious and risky. The leaders in the $3 billion laser marketplace are typically content to target their products at specific niches. Not Raydiance. Just as Microsoft Corp. carefully stewarded the PC software industry in the 1980s, Schuler hopes to spawn an ecosystem around its products. "If we can get this technology into the hands of a lot of people, we'll see an explosion of innovation bigger than the microprocessor revolution that has powered the world economy for the past 30 years," Schuler says. "Even based on our current technology, we can create hundreds of companies."

Schuler believes only an outsider like himself, with no knowledge of the technology and sales hurdles, would have dared this approach. Indeed, many of the core technologies remain expensive and untested, and it could take years for the various laser applications he dreams of to generate meaningful revenue. "[USP lasers] are definitely gee-whiz, but we don't have any commercial interest at this point," says Alan Evans, research director of optical physics and networks technology at Corning Inc. (GLW ) Many laser industry execs see Schuler as a rich interloper, grown too big for his britches. "We have been engaged with this tech for the past 15 years," says Takashi Omitsu, CEO of IMRA America. "We do not see them as a strong competitor."

The first machine Raydiance built was shipped to the Food & Drug Administration, whose researchers are trying to further improve LASIK eye surgery. Heat generated from the use of conventional lasers sometimes causes harmful deformations in a patient's cornea--a less likely side-effect with USP lasers. Raydiance is also working with Silicon Valley startup EpiRay, which hopes to use USP lasers to remove unwanted tattoos. After all, there are some 10 million Gen Y-ers who might someday be candidates.


The medical benefits of such devices may go far beyond cosmetic remedies. The FDA and others are exploring various cancer therapies, and Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas is studying whether Raydiance's technology could be used to treat burn victims, says professor of surgery Ahamed Idris. The idea is to ablate the scorched tissue to inhibit toxic cell secretions that amplify a burn victim's pain and that can trigger organ failure, Idris' team believes. He has applied for grants with the U.S. Army to find ways to treat soldiers at MASH units quickly and painlessly before sending them to hospitals. "We're often reluctant to give general anesthesia" to badly burned people, he says. With this approach "we might be able to get away with intravenous pain medicine."

In molecular biology, USP lasers are already expanding the horizons of basic research, says gene pioneer J. Craig Venter. His startup, Synthetic Genomics Inc., uses Raydiance's equipment to test new ways of inserting genes into cells. (Schuler is on Venter's board.)

The most elaborate plans, however, are in the military realm. At Raydiance's nondescript office in Orlando, the company has cranked its lasers up to 200 watts, more than 40 times the power of current USP models. If it pulls off its plan to hit 1000 watts or more, a Raydiance box on a piloted plane or drone cruising at 10,000 feet could scan the sides of a road to detect concealed bombs, says Les Lyles, a retired four-star general who once oversaw the Air Force's Star Wars missile defense efforts. Because its rays are invisible and generate no heat, such a laser could be programmed to identify the bits of sub-atomic detritus it ablates from a target to determine its composition, "and no one would know," says Lyle, who is an investor in Raydiance. Ultimately, it's possible the lasers could be dialed up to higher power levels to serve as "photon missiles," to fry the electronic trigger in the roadside bomb, he adds.

No doubt, such talk conjures up Buck Rogers ideas about laser weapons from the 1950s. But that's not what Schuler has in mind. He prefers to contemplate a vibrant new tech sector radiating outward from a single hub: Raydiance.

By Peter Burrows

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.