Editor’s note: ‘Charlotte Beat’ is a regular feature on Wednesdays in Local Tech Wire. As fast as today’s data and voice transmissions are, their speed is limited by the copper and fiber wires that carry the electronic signal. But with the technology and hardware being developed by Charlotte-based Digital Optics Corporation (DOC), the only limit is the speed of light.

Quips DOC president Kevin Drehmer, “We don’t make the Internet — we make it faster. Any time you move light into communication, you transmit much faster. And we humans want it faster and faster and faster.”

DOC’s basic product is the Photonic Chip, a micro opto-electronic device that makes it possible to use light to transmit voice and data. The chips can convert signals from an electrical to an optical one and vice versa. While ultimately the chips will be used in PCs, Drehmer says, they’re currently only being used in switches and routers and “places where you don’t see them.”

Industry recognition

But people have taken notice of DOC. In April, the company was the runner-up for the North Carolina High Tech Company of the Year award presented by Business North Carolina magazine and KPMG. DOC no longer discloses financial information, but when it still did so in 1999, it was ranked fourth in Deloitte & Touche’s North Carolina Technology Fast 500 and 139th in its national listing. Also that year, it was 120th on Inc’s 500 Fastest Growing Companies.

Even DOC’s customer list is tightly held. Because the technology is so cutting edge, Drehmer says, customers don’t allow the company to reveal their names.

“They don’t want the competition to know what they’re doing,” he explains. “But I can say they are household names in telecommunications and data transmission.”

One he does mention is Agilent.

Mass production vs. by-hand

It is not only the Photonic Chip itself that gives DOC a competitive advantage, but also the process by which it is made. Similar chips are made by other companies, Drehmer says, but they are hand-assembled by highly dexterous individuals using microscopes. The Photonic Chip, on the other hand, is mass produced.

The chips are made at the wafer level. Wafers are bonded together and then cut into individual chips. “We can get a lot on a wafer at one time, making it a low cost way to manufacture our devices,” Drehmer says.

The manufacturing is done in clean rooms at DOC’s 100,000-square-foot facility, where it moved in March 2001. It’s located in Charlotte’s University Research Park and employs 115 people.

Long road to success

DOC, however has not been an overnight success — quite the contrary, in fact. The company was founded in 1991 by Dr. Michael R. Feldman of UNC Charlotte and one of his grad students, Dr. W. Hudson Welch, based on Dr. Feldman’s research into diffractive optics. They originally used Dr. Feldman’s home for the company address and used his credit cards for the original $2,000 funding. In 1992, the firm moved into the Ben Craig Center, an UNCC-affiliated business incubator.

They survived on Small Business Investigative Research Grants and signed their first contract with AMP Corp. By 1994, they had received some patents, and a year later received venture funding from Carolinas Capital. During 1996 and 1997, DOC got its first high volume order, again from AMP; expanded into space at Northwoods Business Park; and brought in Drehmer, now 47. as vice president of operations. He was named president in 1999. Dr. Feldman remains as chief technology officer, and Dr. Welch is vice president and chief engineer. Over the years, the company has received additional venture funding from companies such as the Wakefield Group and InterSouth Partners.

While nether founder teaches at UNC Charlotte now, the ties between the university and DOC remain strong. About 20 to 25 of its employees are UNC Charlotte graduates or students, and the facility is adjacent to the campus. The company is also involved with projects at the university’s precision metrology and opto-electronic centers, and Drehmer sits on the university’s Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation.

Drehmer also credits UNC Charlotte for the city’s growing reputation as a technology center. “They’re dong great things, which is giving the area greater recognition,” he says, “We’re very proud of our association with it.”

Digital Optics Corp. Web site: www.doc.com