Silicon Photonics Sticks Its Head Above the Parapet

Article By : Eric Mounier and Alexis Debray

Yole initially reported on silicon photonics applications in 2011. It is interesting to compare our vision at that time with what is happening today.

Yole initially reported on silicon photonics applications in 2011. It is interesting to compare our vision at that time with what is happening today.

In 2011, silicon photonics was still an emerging technology, with only two industrial players: Luxtera and Kotura. At the market level, it was obvious that datacom would be the primary market for silicon photonics, though the medical sector had already been identified as an interesting opportunity.

At the start of the 2010s, silicon photonics suffered from a lack of industrial infrastructure for design and foundry activities. When Luxtera and STMicroelectronics announced a partnership early in the decade, it was seen as a first step toward setting up a foundry service dedicated to silicon photonics. The total market for silicon photonics at that time was valued at $65 million (mainly for datacom).

In 2021, the industrial and market landscape for silicon photonics looks far different. While datacom and then telecom have long been considered the most important silicon photonics markets, Rockley Photonics’ announcement of silicon photonics technology’s use for consumer applications has changed this vision.

Rockley recently expanded the range of possible applications for its non-invasive biomarker sensing into new medical technology segments. The company has signed strategic partnerships with two of the world’s 10 largest medical equipment and device manufacturers (one of them is Medtronic); together, the two companies represent more than $40 billion of revenue in the medical equipment market. But the medical market will probably not generate photonics revenues until 2024. Potential applications include treatments for diseases including diabetes.

Today, dynamized by cloud applications for home office and personal use, video on demand, and 5G expansion, the primary silicon photonics application is still optical communication, with the technology integrated into 25% to 30% of optical transceivers. Some applications, such as immunoassays (Genalyte) and fiber-optic gyroscopes (KVH), will continue to grow, while LiDAR and photonic computing applications are emerging markets.

Consumer health applications are gaining in importance with the release of smartwatches that include an expanding complement of sensors. Silicon photonics is also expected to be integrated into other wearables, such as earphones. As in LiDAR, silicon photonics will enable compact and affordable optical modules.

The consumer health application today is concentrated in the collaboration that Rockley Photonics started with Apple in 2017. Apple remains an important client of Rockley, with $70 million of non-recurring engineering commitment to date. The fitness market is part of Apple’s strategy; its Apple Fitness+ service is integrated into the Apple Watch and offers various exercise apps, such as Pilates, yoga, and muscle strengthening. The Apple Watch can measure heart rate and performance in real time.

Rockley today is well-positioned to pursue health and wellness solutions for the next generation of consumer wearables and medical devices. The company completed a merger with SC Health on Aug. 11, 2021, and commenced trading on the NYSE (under the ticker symbol RKLY). Rockley has increased its cash position to US$145.5 million, which will fund the continued development of integrated photonics solutions following the company’s business combination with SC Health.

Biosensing applications in smartwatches today fuel the silicon photonics market. The smartwatch market is in the 100-million–unit range today. Yole forecasts that silicon photonics devices for biosensing applications in smartwatches could amount to 20+ million units per year by 2026.

By 2026, almost half of the silicon photonic die market could be for consumer health, with a projected $478 million share of a total silicon photonic die market valued at $1.1 billion. By 2035, the silicon photonics market could grow further, bolstered by a large contribution from consumer health care.1

On the more distant horizon, the use of integrated photonics in computing could pave the way for the realization of an optical quantum computer. For example, American company PsiQuantum recently announced that it would introduce a quantum computer based on integrated optics technology before 2030. The computing performance could accelerate drug development, optimize research in solid-state batteries, and yield lighter and stronger materials for airplanes, for example.

It took almost 20 years (Luxtera was founded in 2001) for silicon photonics to evolve from a technology reserved for niche markets, such as high-performance computing or military applications, to an accessible technology for higher-volume markets, including consumer.

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

Eric Mounier is director of market research at Yole Développement.

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