A New Type of Dot Com

UNM Spin-Off is Commercializing Quantum Dot Technology

Zia Laser, an Albuquerque-based nanotech company, is refining its quantum dot technology into what could be the next generation of microprocessors.

Quantum dots, or tiny dot-like clusters of semiconductor, are just a few nanometers (a billionth of a meter) in height, so small that two million of them lined end to end would be just one centimeter long. By harnessing the power of these dots, Zia Laser is blazing a trail for tech start ups from the University of New Mexico and creating opportunities for students, New Mexico's economy, and the entire semiconductor industry.

Zia Laser spun off from UNM's Center for High Technology Materials (CHTM) in 2001. "Our vision really was to take a technology in its very earliest stages and show that a New Mexico company could be started from UNM technology," says Luke Lester, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the company’s founders. "We wanted to show that we could not only use people and money to make good science and engineering, but that we could take science and engineering and make money and products," adds Lester.

A Better Beam

Quantum dots are created using Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE). Through MBE the dots self-assemble on a substrate and emit light. By applying electricity to stacks of these substrates, researchers generate laser beams that are used to enhance data transfer rates between integrated circuits. These lasers have the world's lowest threshold current density, a measure of how much current it takes to make the laser turn on. They also behave very differently from other semiconductor lasers and in ways similar to atomic lasers. Zia Laser's quantum dot laser beam has superior performance capabilities in part because it combines the advantages of both semiconductor and atomic lasers. The result is a more efficient device that consumes less power and may be less expensive to manufacture.

Zia Laser founders think their laser could transform the optoelectronics industry. "The issue is moving data on and off microprocessor chips and the bottleneck that creates in the copper wiring. What we're looking at is a way to get around that bottleneck optically," says Lester. He estimates that the company is about two years from production.

Collaboration and Capital

All this cutting-edge technology requires talented engineers and a large infusion of cash. Since the company started in 2000, Zia Laser has generated more than $22 million from investors. "That's money going into high-tech jobs. Ninety percent of that money is spent right here in New Mexico," says Lester.

He points out that the company's flexibility and the technology's broad application made Zia Laser attractive to investors and kept the company going during the notoriously difficult start-up phase. "The company isn't a one hit wonder. Our quantum dots are core materials technology that has many different applications," says Lester. He adds that Zia Laser employees have been especially supportive during the start-up phase. "They've been through the trenches, and my hat is off to them. They have a lot of true entrepreneurial spirit."

But it took more than talent, money, and patience to get Zia Laser off the ground. To spin off from CHTM, the company needed to collaborate with the Science and Technology Center (STC), a non-profit corporation owned by UNM that assists faculty and researchers with patents and technology transfer.

All of the company founders, including COO Petros Varangis, were either UNM faculty members, researchers at CHTM, or UNM students at the time they started the spin-off process. In fact, Zia Laser was STC's first full-fledged tech spin-off with active faculty members. Between negotiating the license, finding venture capital, and starting the business, both parties say it was a challenging process that had a good end result. "Zia Laser is the first UNM start-up founded by active faculty," says Joe Cecchi, dean of the School of Engineering and chairman of the board of STC. "The company represents an excellent case study in technology transfer. No other UNM spin-off has done as well as Zia Laser has in generating venture capital funding."

Lisa Kuuttila, president of STC, agrees. "Zia Laser has a lot of promise. They've raised a considerable amount of money to get their technology going, and we want to do everything we can to help support them."

The market for Zia Laser's research is growing. Business Communications Company Inc., a technical market research and analysis firm, estimates that the current global market for quantum dot technology is around $10 million. But new technology from companies like Zia Laser could increase the market exponentially to hundreds of millions of dollars in just a few years. Zia Laser's success will also be UNM's. STC holds the license to the core technologies Zia Laser uses, and therefore will receive a percentage of the company's future earnings.

The benefits to the company and the university go beyond the financials. UNM engineering students gain career opportunities from tech start-ups like Zia Laser. In fact, the company now employs several UNM graduates.

It's clear that through innovative technology and smart business collaborations, Zia Laser is proving that its dot com revolution is just getting started.