Rochester PhD students land a grand prize for a novel photonics solution

May 4, 2022

Sushant Kumar and Juniyali Nauriyal give their winning pitch at the New York Business Plan Competition.
Sushant Kumar and Juniyali Nauriyal give their winning pitch at the New York Business Plan Competition.

$15,000 award is a big boost for a small startup

Two PhD students at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics won the Grand Prize and $15,000 at this year’s New York Business Plan Competition for their solution to a troublesome problem in creating integrated photonic devices.

Lab mates Juniyali Nauriyal and Sushant Kumar described a novel way to securely attach optical fibers to the devices. Currently, companies use glue, which requires long cure times, and often shifts in position and shape, leading to low yields, inconsistent device performance, overheating, and excess energy use.

Nauriyal and Kumar, cofounders of the Photonect start-up company, use lasers to weld the glass of optical fibers to the glass of mode converters in integrated photonic devices. In their pitch, Nauriyal and Kumar said the new fusion splicing technology connects the fibers 10 times faster, improves device performance fourfold, and leads to a 50 percent reduction in costs.

More than 200 student teams competed in the competition, hosted by Upstate Capital Association of New York. The competition was conducted in three rounds, starting in March, with one round at the regional level and then two rounds at the state level.

“I think the biggest benefit of winning any pitch competition is that the prize money comes without any strings attached,” says Nauriyal, Photonect’s CEO who came to Rochester after earning a BS in engineering from the University of Mumbai in India. “Especially for a start-up. A lot of grants that we apply for specify that you can only buy certain equipment or do certain things with it. This gives us more freedom.”

Also valuable were the opportunities to network during the competition with New York entrepreneurial entities such as Fuze-Hub, says Kumar, Photonect’s CTO. Those entities can provide grants and access to specialized equipment at lower rates for student-led start-ups. “Those kinds of connections are really important for us, because we want to minimize capital expenditure at this point,” Kumar says.

A supportive culture for entrepreneurship at Rochester

“When I started my research, my goal was to create something that people can actually use,” Nauriyal says.

The journey that led to Photonect and a grand prize illustrates how students like Nauriyal can team together and find plenty of mentors and resources to help them with entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester.

The new fusion splicing technology originated in Nauriyal’s master’s degree project in the lab of Jaime Cardenas, an assistant professor of optics and an expert in nanoscale optical devices. Nauriyal continued working on the project when she stayed on in the Cardenas Lab to complete her PhD.

“I presented at a conference and got a lot of positive feedback from industry representatives,” Nauriyal says. That prompted her and Cardenas to investigate the potential for commercialization.

They received plenty of encouragement from Institute of Optics faculty members. Former Institute director Scott Carney, for example, directed them to the University’s Ain Center for Entrepreneurship. Thomas Brown, current Institute director, and Duncan Moore, the University’s vice provost for entrepreneurship and the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor in Optical Engineering Science, were also key supporters of the project.

 Nauriyal participated in the Ain center’s I-Corps program, then the NSF I-Corps program,   taking courses and doing customer discovery. Potential investors were interested. One instructor in the NSF program described the project as “a clear winner.” Photonect was selected for a Spirit of I-Corps Award over 20 other teams in the cohort.

Given all the positive feedback, Nauriyal says, “I decided we should start a company.”

By 2018, three patents for the technology had been filed by UR Ventures, the University’s technology transfer office. As part of an Ain Center student incubator program, the new company was provided office space at NextCorps headquarters in the Sibley Building in downtown Rochester.

Kumar, who joined the Cardenas Lab after completing a master’s in electrical engineering at University of California San Diego, welcomed the opportunity to join the company. He had already experienced the difficulties involved in connecting fibers to chips at UCSD. He also knew the benefits of Nauriyal’s fusion-splicing technology firsthand. Kumar was using it for his own projects in the Cardenas Lab.

“No matter how good your research is, if you don’t pursue it as commercialization, it’s going to get buried,” he says. “There are so many papers coming out of labs, there’s just too much volume for industry to keep track of. So, if you want something to get into industry’s hands, you have to take it upon yourself.”

Rice Business Plan Competition helped refine the pitch

Undeterred by an initial failure to win last year’s NYBPC, Nauriyal and Kumar entered the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition at Houston in early April. It turned out to be the perfect warmup for the New York State competition later in the month. The Rice competition, which draws 400 teams from across the globe, consists of presenting your pitch, then getting feedback on it for three consecutive days.

“We were pitching to investors in technology, but investors who are not super knowledgeable about it. So, the opportunity to continually refine your pitch to a place where they can understand what you’re trying to do was really great practice for us,” Kumar says.

With $15,000 in hand, Photonect is “pretty close” to approaching customers, Nauriyal says. The prototype currently consists of a benchtop setup in a lab. So, initially the company will provide software and design services and an adapter that companies and other research labs can use on their own setups.

Eventually, as the company grows, Nauriyal and Kumar will work with manufacturers to produce a refrigerator-sized, all-in-one integrated photonic packaging device system. “Basically, you put your chip in, robots do their thing, shoot the laser at the chip, and fuse the connection,” Kumar says.

In the meantime, both Kumar and Nauriyal plan to complete their PhDs. This requires a carefully orchestrated juggling act to separate their work on Photonect from their PhD responsibilities. Kumar, for example, is a teaching assistant for a class this spring. As soon as he returned from the NYBPC, he plunged into finishing the grading for the class.

“Segmenting your time is the key,” he says.

“Every week you have a set amount of goals to do, making sure your PhD research is not left behind, as well as working for the startup,” Nauriyal adds. “It has to go hand in hand.”

Completing those PhDs is especially important given the odds Photonect faces. As Kumar puts it: “95 percent of startups fail, but 100 percent of PhDs in optics get jobs.”

Even so, Nauriyal encourages college students interested in entrepreneurship to “definitely pursue it”—especially while they are still in college and don’t have families or other commitments that could be put at risk.

“It’s a great experience, and you will learn a lot,” she says.