People behind the PICs | Desi Gutierrez

People behind the PICs | The Photonic Integrated Circuits (PIC) industry is booming. Companies in the field are growing steadily, start-ups with innovative solutions are popping up regularly, and the search for technical staff seems never-ending. In this interview series, we are curious to get to know the people behind the PICs. Who are the energy forces driving this technological revolution, and what motivates them? What can future photonics engineers expect from a career in this field?

Desi Gutierrez immediately lights up when asked what made her decide to do a master and PhD in photonics. More specifically, in optical communication systems and Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs). Ever since she was young, the idea of connecting with people on the other side of the world in real time has been mind-blowing to her. It sparked her fascination with telecom and optical networks. After a master’s degree in Telecommunication Engineering, she eagerly took on the opportunity to do an employment-based PhD at simultaneously Dublin City University and Pilot Photonics. This year marks her twelfth anniversary at the latter company, where she is now Director of Photonics.

What made you most enthusiastic about doing a part of your PhD at Pilot Photonics?

“I have wanted to study telecom engineering since I was 12 years old. When I was doing my masters in telecommunication, I started looking more into optics and photonics as I realized they are the key to revolutionizing and transforming the existing networks. What really sealed the deal for me to do a PhD in photonics was this fantastic opportunity that Frank Smyth, the Founder and CTO of Pilot Photonics, and Liam Barry, Professor and Director of the Radio and Optical Communications Laboratory in DCU, gave me to do an employment-based PhD at DCU while working at Pilot Photonics at the same time. This way, I could do innovative research in optical communication that directly impacted the company and make a real-world difference. It made it very tangible, so it was a no-brainer for me.”

Desi Gutierrez, Director of Photonics at Pilot Photonics. Photography by Dublin City University.

How does the university environment differ from the industry environment that you work in now?

“Working in a start-up or scale-up is all about being very quick on your feet. Decisions have to happen fast. The business strategy may be different tomorrow than it is today. You always need to be ready for change based on what the market or the customer is telling you. This can feel quite chaotic when you compare it to academia, where generally speaking the timeline is more structured and the way of working is more defined. Personally speaking, I thrive on the dynamics of a company. I love being able to work on something and immediately seeing the impact of it. Working towards releasing new features or products at a conference and seeing people’s reaction to our products on display, hearing their feedback, is incredibly rewarding. Working with customers also means you get to experience up close how the industry evolves.”

How would you describe the vision of Pilot Photonics? And where do you see it going in five to ten years?

 “At Pilot Photonics, we focus on optical frequency combs. These are specialized light sources that generate multiple parallel and precisely spaced wavelengths. Today, these comb lasers are confined to scientific applications and research. The vision of Pilot Photonics is to integrate optical frequency combs on photonic chips and have them become a key component in optical network, just as single mode lasers are today. Combs have the capacity to enable the continuous scaling of these networks and new digital applications that can improve our world. Take Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – without improvements in optical networks, the potentials of these technologies are limited. Now is a very interesting time to be working on this, as there are so many fascinating developments in this field. Everyone would have heard of ChatGPT, for example, and just last month, the first antibiotic in over 60 years was discovered using artificial intelligence, which has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of deaths each year.

As a university spin-out, our technology around optical frequency combs has always been ahead of the market, but it is clear that the market need is now arriving and we are feeling a strong customer pull. This year, we are releasing our first high volume products, our Nano Integrated Tunable Laser Assembly (ITLA), and NG-PON2 lasers and we expect to grow the company rapidly on the back of these. Our tunable laser offers a unique trifecta of wide tuning, low linewidth and fast-switching relevant for numerous applications like coherent communication, sensing, LIDAR and others; while our NG-PON2 laser is geared towards passive optical networks with a fast-tuning time, compliant with the ITU-T G.982.2 class 1.

We are now moving to a new office building with four times the capacity of our current premises, and we also plan to establish a presence in the US. In five to ten years, we will be leading supplier of comb-based and comb-enhanced light sources into the AI/ML datacenter market either directly, or through strategic partnerships.”

What is something you are working on right now that really excites you?

“In my role as Director of Photonics, I manage the design team and take care of defining all the PICs we create and the packaging around them. Our aim is to deliver self-contained solutions to the customer. Right now I am leading a project on an Integrated Comb Laser Assembly (iCLA), which has a lot of potential. With this project, we are working towards bringing comb technology in a PIC to the market so we can increase the data throughput of optical networks.

The iCLA is a pioneering solution that leverages an optical frequency comb to improve the spectral efficiency in optical networks, meaning we can make better use of the network bandwidth. It also allows us to replace multiple tunable lasers with a single device, which results in a smaller size, and lower cost, power consumption and complexity. ”

How do you explain your job to people outside of this industry? How do you make it understandable and exciting?

“It can be hard to explain in simple terms, but I usually connect it to the applications I mentioned earlier: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. I tell people we are working towards making existing optical networks and data centers more efficient, with the aim of delivering an internet experience that is faster, more responsive and of better quality for everyone. Whether you’re streaming content in platforms like Netflix, having videocalls or using ChatGPT, our work ensures the potential to keep improving the quality and speed of these applications, while also enabling new applications.”

What has been challenging in your career and what was the most rewarding?

 “One of the most challenging things in my career, and probably for anyone in photonics, is how the landscape is always evolving. You need to stay on top of what is happening because if you don’t, you fall behind very quickly. Photonic Integrated Circuits were nothing ten years ago, now it is everywhere. Markets that did not exist five years ago are now booming. This means you, as an employee in this field, need to commit to keep learning and developing yourself all the time; attending events and conferences, reading papers and magazines, talking to customers, etc. At the same time, this also makes it interesting of course. You are never bored, it keeps you alive. As a start-up, we are constantly trying to see where our technology fits and it’s incredibly fulfilling to get market approval and acceptance from end customers. For example, we have a couple of projects with the European Union and the European Space Agency. It is exciting to see intergovernmental organizations of this scale being interested in our technology. Also, most recently, we published a publication with ADVA Optical Networks (now Adtran Networks) as they tested our iCLA. Having deep collaborations with large industry players is something we are very proud of.”

Desi Gutierrez, Director of Photonics at Pilot Photonics. Photography by Dublin City University.

Is there somebody in the photonics industry that you look to for inspiration?

 “There are several individuals whom I admire, but if I were to highlight one person, it would undoubtedly be Frank Smyth, the CTO of Pilot Photonics. Since the beginning of my PhD to the present day, he has played an instrumental role as a mentor, consistently advocating for my growth and offering invaluable guidance. He is still the first person I go to for advice and direction. What I find most inspiring is his entrepreneurial and forward-thinking mentality. He has an innate ability to quickly spot where our technology can make a meaningful impact. This quality not only inspires me but also motivates me to improve myself in this regard by learning more and more and deepening my understanding of the market.”

How do you experience the European PIC ecosystem?

“I think it is amazing to see the level of cross-collaboration we have in Europe in the field of PICs. Our company has worked with numerous of those players including Bright Photonics, SMART Photonics, Fraunhofer HHI, PHIX, to name a few. Having so many PIC technologies at hand is very useful and empowering. As a scale-up company, we also benefit greatly from the work JePPIX does in making sure companies collaborate and the PIC supply chain keeps developing itself. With the support of the JePPIX Pilot Line, we have been able to move to an early production phase.”

Do you have any tips for people starting out in the field of photonics, or things they should keep in mind?

“Photonics and optics are constantly in evolution. It is a fast-moving field, so you need a deep sense of curiosity and a hunger for learning. I would advise people starting out to stay curious and proactive. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone and tackle new problems. Embrace new challenges because they often lead you to breakthroughs!”

Curious to know which job opportunities the photonic integration community has to offer? Check out our career page.