Dr Ying Lia Li RAEng Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Fellow, University College London

CORNERSTONE’s flexible, speedy photonics services helped Zero Point Motion Ltd scale up the development of their optical inertial sensors, enabling them to bid for further funding to take these products to market, with CORNERSTONE as a continuing project partner.

Why did you get in contact with CORNERSTONE?

My company Zero Point Motion Ltd creates photonic chip-scale sensors for monitoring vibration and eventually for 3D positioning, which could be used in biomedical applications and indoor navigation. 

It is difficult to commercialise these sensors because they require optimisation through multiple iterations to substantiate the market research. Going from a hand-fabricated research device to chip-fabrication can be a lengthy process and we needed to get positive market feedback quickly to access funding to mature the product. 

This is where CORNERSTONE comes in. By using their multi-project-wafer (MPW) service, we could de-risk and build a ‘near’ market product through photonic fabrication rather than trying to miniaturise using off-the-shelf components. I made a hand-fabricated prototype during my EPSRC fellowship and it was really obvious that hand-making things was slow, unreproducible and bulky. 

I always wanted to move into the research area of photonic integrated circuits but I only had a short-term experience working at micro-electro-mechanical systems cleanrooms in industry. I searched for a photonics cleanroom that I could use, knowing that I wanted one based in the UK so that I could easily visit or speak to them. I looked up CORNERSTONE as they had been recommended to me by a researcher I had met at a conference. 

Because of CORNERSTONE’s MPW service, there was more scope for me to try things out without spending a lot of research and development money or wasting wafers. I also knew other people who had used CORNERSTONE and that further reassured me about their suitability. By coincidence, my Royal Academy of Engineering mentor is Professor Sir David Payne who is Director of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) from which CORNERSTONE was created, and he also backed them up as an excellent service. 

How did CORNERSTONE help you with your requirements?

I submitted mask designs for MPW7 and MPW12 to create optical ring resonator structures coupled to waveguides. This is the chip-analogy of my hand-fabricated systems except without the moveable resonator which I hope to start working on soon. 

The people at CORNERSTONE were very helpful and patient. CORNERSTONE Coordinator Dr Callum Littlejohns responded to my emails quickly and explained things very clearly. 

When we received the MPW7 chips we were overwhelmed with how to actually test them since the structures are smaller than 1mm. I set up a DIY chip-test rig and again Callum was very helpful, suggesting what to try to get light to couple into and out of the chips. That ‘through-life’ care from CORNERSTONE, even after the chips had been delivered, really impressed me. Their help meant that we were able to successfully get light into and out of the chips after only two weeks – a fast turnaround considering we were using sticky tape and non-motorised translation stages! They have continued to support me through inviting me to attend photonics conference and suggesting ways we could work together and acquire further funding. 

How will the work with CORNERSTONE help you in the future?

The work with CORNERSTONE has massively de-risked the optical side of our product. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive service. Within a year I had gone from no experience with photonic chips to independently designing masks and testing the chips, which was a massive achievement for me, on very little budget too. 

I would recommend any start-ups interested in photonic structures to approach CORNERSTONE. They provide a supportive experience, with great documentation to enable you to get things up and running quickly. 

I am hoping to bid for some more funding – with CORNERSTONE as a project partner, to conduct further detailed research and development. I will be using the chips that were developed  from their MPW services as evidence that I’ve matured the technology and have a great project partner to help deliver it to market.