The Finisar team: Dr Simon Poole, Mr Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken
Finisar have created technologies that make global internet connections faster and more efficient. About half of the world’s internet traffic travels through devices developed by the team and made in Sydney.
The global internet we rely on is carried by optical fibres that link continents, countries and cities. The speed and volume of internet traffic was limited by the need to convert data from light to electrical signals for switching and processing. To tackle the problem, the Finisar team created light-bending switches using prisms, liquid crystals and silicon, which have dramatically improved the capacity and reliability of the internet. One switch can handle a million simultaneous high-definition streaming videos. The team are now working on boosting the capacity of their devices further to meet the demands of 5G and the Internet of Things.
For creating and commercialising technologies that underpin the global internet, Dr Simon Poole, Mr Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken receive the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation. Their company, Finisar Australia, is based in Sydney.
In 1666 Isaac Newton used a prism to split white light into its constituent colours.
Today, a small optical device invented in Sydney uses high-tech prisms to split light into more than 100 coloured beams of light and switch them from one optical fibre to another allowing the devices to handle 10 terabits per second.
Finisar’s Flexgrid Wavelength Selectable Switches are used by the world’s major telecommunication companies wherever people need high-speed internet and mobile phone access, from Sydney and New York to the mountains of Kenya, the deserts of the United Arab Emirates, and the jungles of Peru. The switches allow optical fibres—once only used for the inflexible long-haul conduits joining cities and countries—to handle more data more nimbly, as well as making them more efficient and reliable.
Finisar’s devices have made fibre optics cheap to use over short connections, and allowed internet traffic to grow in volume and drop in price. By carrying many signals at the same time and switching rapidly between fibres, they have transformed point-to-point optical fibres into adaptable mesh networks. Because the switches are controlled by software, they let network managers rapidly reroute traffic when there’s a network fault. The Flexgrid concept has also been adopted into international standards.
The patented technology was created by a team of four engineers in Sydney who thought they could beat the world’s biggest telecommunications companies and solve a problem that was holding back the growth of the internet.
Back in 2001 the capacity of the internet was limited. Optical fibres carried data from point to point, for example from Sydney to Los Angeles, or Melbourne to Canberra, and plugged into slower electric signal networks for local connections.
Simon Poole says there were problems with both capacity and reliability.
“Large companies were spending billions of dollars looking for solutions. The four of us had all worked in optics, and we were looking for something to contribute after the dot-com collapse,” he says.
“We could see that there was huge scope for optics in the network, as a lot of other people could,” says Andrew Bartos.
“But we could see that the networks were too inefficient, too inflexible. So we took a contrarian view. We looked for something completely different, something unorthodox, and we came up with this idea.” The initial inspiration came from a data projector that was available at the time, which used a technology called Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS).
“This technology was great for projecting images up onto a screen and I thought I could see a way that we could use it to project different colours of light into different fibres,” Steven Frisken says.
“That set us on the path to creating an optical wavelength switch.”
The device has three major components: a prism that’s able to divide the light into many different colours, a Liquid Crystal on Silicon chip that can steer the light into different optical fibres, and the algorithms that manage the device.
It took a significant effort to persuade their customers—manufacturers of networking equipment that incorporates Finisar’s switches—that such a small company in Sydney could take on a problem this big. Members of the team spent a lot of time in aircraft flying not just to the customers but also to the end users, the telecommunications companies who were working with the devices in their networks.
The company was originally called Engana. Today it is part of Finisar, a Nasdaq-listed company in the US. They have 230 people at their Sydney base, where they design, assemble, sell and support the devices with the aid of teams in China, Korea and America. All the devices are exported from Australia for integration into systems sold by the world’s telecommunication companies.
The Finisar team aren’t done with innovating. They’ve recently introduced a product that not only switches light in networks but also measures signal quality, and they’re continuing to work on ways of pushing still more data through the optical fibres.
The team’s innovations and mentoring are now seeding a new generation of optics-based companies, including Cylite, which is developing eye care diagnostics, Baraja for autonomous vehicles, and Terra15 for geophysical sensing.
Career profiles: Simon Poole, Steve Frisken, Glenn Baxter & Andrew Bartos
1987 PhD, University of Southampton
1979 Bachelor of Science with Honours, University of Nottingham
1989 PhD, University of New South Wales
1986 Bachelor of Science with Honours, University of New South Wales
1998 PhD, Macquarie University
1994 Bachelor of Technology (Optoelectronics) with Honours, Macquarie University
2003 Bachelor of Legal Studies, University of New South Wales
1987 Master of Science, Imperial College, University of London
1985 Bachelor of Electrical Engineering with Honours, University of New South Wales
2008–ongoing Finisar Australia
2001–2006 Engana Pty Ltd
2018 Officer of the Order of Australia
2008–ongoing Director, New Business Ventures, Finisar Australia
2006–2008 General Manager and Vice President Business Development, Optium Australia
2001–2006 Chief Executive Officer, Engana Pty Ltd
2000–2003 Venture Partner, KPLJ Ventures
1997–2000 Technical Director, JDSUniphase Australia
1995–1997 Chief Executive Officer, Indx Pty Ltd
1988–1995 Technical Director, Optical Fibre Technology Centre, University of Sydney
2013–ongoing Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Cylite Pty Ltd
2006–ongoing Chief Technology Officer and Consultant, Optium/Finisar Australia
2002–2006 Founder, Chief Executive Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Engana Pty Ltd
2000–2001 Chief Technology Officer, Nortel Networks
1994–2000 Founder, Photonic Technologies
1989–1993 Research & Development, Overseas Telecommunications Commission, Sydney, Australia
2018–ongoing Senior Director, Research and Development, Finisar
2011–2018 Director Research and Development, Finisar
2002–2011 Research and Development Manager, Finisar (formerly Optium)
2000–2002 Project Leader Research and Development, Engana Pty Ltd
2000–2001 Senior Research and Development Engineer Nortel Networks (Photonics), Australia
2000 Lecturer in Physics, Beverley Fellow, Director of Photonics, University of Otago, New Zealand
1998–1999 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Otago, New Zealand
2010–ongoing General Manager, Finisar Australia
2006–2010 Director of Operations, Finisar Australia (formerly Optium) Australia
2001–2006 General Manager, Engana Pty Ltd
2000–2001 Senior Engineering Manager, Nortel Networks, High Performance Optical Component Solutions (HPOCS)
1998–2000 Business Development Manager, Photonic Technologies
1994–1998 Director, Albart Trading Company
1993–1994 Network Design and Construction Manager, International Data Networks, Telstra
1992–1993 National Engineering Manager, Telstra Pakistan, Islamabad
Image: The Finisar team: (L to R) Steven Frisken, Simon Poole, Andrew Bartos, and Glenn Baxter (Credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)