Chicago startup makes light work of energy-efficient communications

Happy Friday afternoon! We’re about midway through the summer so I hope you have some fun, safe, and socially distant plans to milk these summer days for all they’re worth.

When making plans do you think about emissions and how to reduce them? If you’re like me, when you think of “emissions” you first think of transportation exhaust and how you could cut down on vehicle trips. But you probably didn’t consider data center emissions. With modern society’s ever-increasing data communication needs, data centers are under a heavy load. Their emissions and notoriously high energy use are a big problem.

This spring the Clean Energy Trust backed a Chicago startup that is working to tackle the data center emissions problem with its silicon light technology. The business also just opened a round of seed funding. Get an inside look at Iris Light Technologies after today’s tech headlines.

🤝 PARTNERSHIPS:

  • Ames Laboratory in Iowa is partnering with Houston-based Decision Frameworks to enhance and accelerate the commercialization process for technologies developed at Ames’ Critical Materials Institute. CMI addresses supply chain shortages of rare-earth elements and other materials critical to domestic manufacturing.

  • Columbus, Ohio-based Plug Smart helped the St. Clairsville-Richland City School District replace aging infrastructure with a series of technology upgrades to boost energy efficiency and lower costs.  

***SPONSORED LINK: The Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition is hiring a Manager of Community Engagement and Equity. Join the team to play a leadership role in developing an equitable and diverse Midwestern coalition to advance affordable homes and businesses that are free of climate change-causing air pollution.***

🔬 RESEARCH: Yesterday, Illinois’ governor and Chicago’s mayor joined the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Chicago, Fermilab, and Argonne National Laboratory for the unveiling of DOE’s quantum internet blueprint, citing Chicago as one of the key locations where research and innovation are underway for developing a national quantum internet.

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***SPONSORED LINK: The Cleanie Awards — the #1 awards program in clean technology — is now accepting applications! Submit to win, or contact us with any questions. Applications close July 30.***

Now, more on Iris Light Technologies, which formed as a company in 2018.

THE PROBLEM: The rapid growth in digital, cloud-based data communications has led to the creation of a plethora of data centers to handle the traffic. The data center needs are expected to further boom as more artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and 5G technologies emerge. But data centers take up a huge footprint, consume massive amounts of energy and other resources, and are expensive to operate. They contain tens of thousands of silicon photonic chips, or light chips, to power the data transfer in the cloud.

“Light chips can only handle a certain quantity of data and it's not enough to meet the growing global demand or data usage,” said Ellie Price, Iris’ business development consultant. “To meet the global data demand in the next decade we're going to need 1,000 times more bandwidth capacity than we have today. The only thing you can do now is to build more data centers. But if you replace all the light chips in existing data centers with our solution, it mitigates the need to build more data centers.”

THE TECHNOLOGY AND IMPACT: Iris Light is developing on-chip laser technology. The chips are made in a more energy-efficient and cost-effective way than competitors’ processes, and the chips provide far more energy efficiency and bandwidth for data communications. “Light is the king of bandwidth. It's like taking a fiber-optic network’s bandwidth and putting it on a chip,” explained founder and CEO Chad Husko. “Our technology reimagined how lasers are being made and used. We combined silicon photonics expertise and nanomaterials expertise and additive manufacturing expertise. The reason this works is the unique combination of those things.”

SUPPORT NETWORK: Iris Light is part of a cohort at the Chain Reaction Innovations incubator at Argonne National Laboratory in addition to the support it is receiving from the Clean Energy Trust. The backing from both groups has been instrumental in advancing the business, from patent and commercialization assistance to public and industry exposure, Price and Husko said. “A lot of people are unfamiliar with silicon photonics unless they're in it. Through their [support] we get to introduce the world to the clean energy potential of this industry,” Price said.

Chad Husko and Jeff Guest working in the lab at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory.

ON BEING MIDWEST-BASED: Silicon Valley received its moniker for the amount of silicon chip technology developed there. “But here in Chicago, it’s a little different. People are more familiar with energy investments. … I think the energy knowledge is in our favor, although maybe not chips in general,” Husko said. “Anytime you’re promoting something newer, there is always a piece of education involved. That’s what we’re doing — saying why this is going to make a difference.”

The venture capital investment style and access to up-front capital is different in the Midwest than on the coasts and can be harder to come by, but “you can still mostly find what you need here in Chicago,” Price said. Plus, the traditional VC culture is experiencing a shift because of the pandemic and more activity is transitioning to video calls than in-person meetings, which creates opportunities for non-coastal startups, she added. The access to leading research universities and the lower cost of living in Chicago “makes for a killer combination for early-stage startups that are seeking to combine talent with research that can be commercialized,” Price said.

WHAT’S NEXT: Iris Light is planning how to establish its own operations outside of the Chain Reaction Innovations space. A key goal is to transition lab results to scalable industrial processes and use its funding to establish a prototype that’s suitable to put into chip factories.

“We truly believe we are accelerating the progress of the silicon photonics industry by finding the solution to a long outstanding problem. … Silicon photonics is not just important to communications, it touches everything — health, medical imaging, wearables, food security — everything,” Price said.

Let me know which other Midwest tech entrepreneurs I should cover in Centered. Send news tips, press releases, and feedback to katie@centered.tech or connect on LinkedIn and Twitter @centereddottech.


Centered is a publication of the Energy News Network, in partnership with the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation and mHUB.