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News | June 6, 2023

Case Study: AIM Photonics and Spark Photonics team up to develop hands-on educational PIC chip

By AIM Photonics AIM Photonics


Microelectronics—particularly integrated photonics—has been identified by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as a critical technology for both national and economic security. And while the emerging technology has advanced considerably over the last decade, the development of a highly skilled workforce needed to make integrated photonics commercially viable for both small and large businesses is seriously lagging.

What’s more, unlike other established industries, few education and workforce development programs focus specifically on the integrated photonics industry in the U.S., and only a handful of those offer students the type of hands-on experience that they will face in a real-world manufacturing environment.


With a background in education and workforce development programs for AIM Academy, Kevin McComber (MIT PhD in silicon photonics) knew he could change that.

As founder and CEO of Spark Photonics, an independent commercial photonic integrated circuit (PIC) design house based in Waltham, Massachusetts, McComber saw a unique business opportunity to develop and market an educational PIC chip that gives both students and members of the integrated photonics industry supply chain a functional chip that helps them learn how to use and calibrate equipment, test and work with different features and components, and better understand PIC device design in general.

Although educational chip kits are not new to the industry, McComber said, most of them weren’t entirely manufactured domestically and didn’t always come with helpful documentation. In addition, delivery of the chip kits was often less than reliable, he said, noting that in some cases they simply weren’t even delivered at all.

Those supply chain issues, compounded with the current shortage in chip production, prompted McComber to turn to AIM Photonics to develop a more comprehensive educational and workforce development PIC kit that would be designed, developed, manufactured and distributed entirely in the U.S.


“As a DoD Manufacturing Innovation Institute, AIM Photonics’ job is to foster the adoption and expansion of photonics, so working with Spark Photonics to develop the EWD PIC Kit was clearly a good match for us,” said Bob Geer, AIM Photonics director of Education and Workforce Development.

Designed with education in mind, Spark Photonics worked with members of the AIM Photonics team, as well as other contributors from the academic community, to develop a new-generation education-specific photonic chip that:

  • makes the technology more approachable for students to explore

  • features basic designs that support existing university curricula

  • helps students determine which device designs work best for specific applications

  • encourages analytical and innovative thinking

One of the most significant benefits, though, is how the learning that transpires with the EWD PIC Kit provides students with the type of hands-on, on-the-job training that most programs just can’t offer.

“Simulation tools allow you to explore the what-ifs, but this actually allows you to get into the nitty-gritty of how measurement gets done,” McComber said. With the EWD PIC Kit, students can get the same type of ‘in-the-trenches’ experience they can expect in a real-world manufacturing environment, but in a more supportive infrastructure that nurtures innovative thinking, he added.


The first generation of the EWD PIC chips that were manufactured by AIM Photonics for wide distribution were strictly passive (meaning there are no electronics built into the chip), which gives students a broad understanding of what happens to light as it passes through basic photonic structures on the chip. Subsequent generations have also incorporated active components, so students can see what can happen to the light when electricity is applied, such as switching, tuning and modulating.

McComber says that the next generation of the EWD PIC chips, which are currently being fabricated by AIM Photonics at the Albany Nanotech Complex, will be more application-specific and include six chiplets to allow students to more fully explore photonic devices used in datacom and telecom applications.

In addition to the chip itself, the complete EWD PIC Kit also includes detailed documentation of what’s included on the chip, as well as exercise examples developed in conjunction with integrated photonics educators at both two- and four-year programs.


Spark Photonics recently delivered its first commercially available EWD PIC Kit to the Western New England University (WNE) College of Engineering Laboratory for Education and Application Prototypes (LEAP) in Springfield, Massachusetts. LEAP@WNE is a state-of-the-art optics/photonics training center established through the Massachusetts Center for Advanced Manufacturing to advance innovations and job growth throughout the state.

Steve Adamshick, Associate Professor and Director of LEAP@WNE, says there will definitely be a shift in their program as a result of the EWD PIC Kit.

“This is a far more effective way of communicating critical integrated photonics concepts to students,” he said. “Before, we relied heavily on computer simulation tools to visualize abstract concepts such as guided wave modes and how they contribute to key parameters such as waveguide loss and confinement. Now, with the EWD PIC kits, we can provide the hands-on learning experiences to demonstrate these concepts in action and, more importantly, close the loop from design to fabrication to test.”

Adamshick also noted that starting in the fall of 2022, WNE will officially include an integrated optics/photonics sequence within their electrical engineering program using learning modules from the EWD PIC kits.

“Adding these hands-on learning modules has enabled us to expand our original integrated photonics course into separate integrated photonics and quantum photonics with the sequence development,” Adamshick said. “The integrated photonics course will primarily look at passive photonic circuit theory, design, and now test, while the quantum photonics course will achieve the same learning objectives for active photonic circuits.”


In addition to its educational customers, Spark Photonics has recently secured an order for an EWD PIC kit intended for industrial use from Syntec Optics, an independent custom manufacturer of polymer optics located in Rochester, NY.

Tom Michailidis, Product Development Manager for Syntec Optics, anticipates that having the EWD PIC kit will allow the company to test the efficiency of their optical coupler designs and various methods used for coupling in the early stages of the waveguide design process.

“With the PIC Kit, we’ll be able test critical attributes such as crosstalk between the waveguides, absorption and loss through the waveguide media, and minimum bending radius, along with bending losses,” he said.

“Understanding where we have losses and being able to make adjustments early on reduces the number of iterations, both in the design and fabrication process, and helps us get to an efficient design more quickly, potentially saving us tens of thousands of dollars in expensive prototype development costs,” Michailidis said.


“The AIM Photonics EWD PIC Kit is a real win-win for small business, education and research, as well as the industry as a whole,” said Amie Kaplin, AIM Photonics Deputy Director. “We’re excited that Spark Photonics has taken this idea to a whole new level and made it commercially available for further advancements throughout the entire integrated photonics ecosystem.”

And, she added, “As an AIM Photonics member, Spark Photonics’ success is our success.”


To learn more about AIM Photonics Education and Workforce Development program contact

U.S. entities may learn more about – and order – the AIM Photonics EWD PIC Kits by contacting Spark Photonics at


AIM Photonics and Spark Photonics would like to acknowledge and thank the many people whose contributions helped make this highly collaborative project a success, including:

Steve Adamshick (WNE)
Anu Agarwal (MIT)
Tom Brown (U Rochester)
Jaime Cardenas (U Rochester)
Jim Davis (SUNY Poly)
Jim Eakin (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)
Nicholas Fahrenkopf (AIM Photonics/SUNY Poly)
Bob Geer (AIM Photonics/SUNY Poly)
Peter Goetz (NRL)
Wei Guo (UMass Lowell)
David Harame (AIM Photonics)
J.J. Hu (MIT)
Lionel Kimerling (MIT)
Yifei Li (UMass Dartmouth)
Pradnya Nagarkar (MIT)
Jelena Notaros (MIT)
Doug Petkie (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)
Milos Popovic (BU)
Stefan Preble (RIT)
Sajan Saini (MIT)
Samuel Serna (Bridgewater State University)
Nicholas Usechak (Air Force Research Laboratory)
Farhad Vazehgoo (Massachusetts Technology Collaborative)
Hualiang Zhang (UMass Lowell)