From “The Harvard Gazette” : “A matter of vision”

From “The Harvard Gazette”


Harvard University

Alvin Powell

A new type of lens developed in Federico Capasso’s lab has gotten its first big market boost. Credit: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer.

Federico Capasso believed a flat lens could revolutionize advanced products and devices. But he needed help innovating one, and getting it to market.

In June 2016, Alan Gordon’s phone was ringing off the hook. On the cover of the prominent journal Science [below] was a striking image of a newly developed “metalens,” an array of tiny rectangular nanostructures that looked like skyscrapers in a vanishingly small city and focused light to a single point.

It was an invention that for years had been followed by doubt. Early results proved the concept, but the models were able to focus so little light it was thought a metalens might never be improved enough to be useful, one expert said. Later, better findings were questioned as inaccurate, and requests came in from incredulous reviewers for actual design details.

“They say it’s impossible, or you’re cheating somewhere in the system,” said Reza Khorasaninejad, a former postdoctoral fellow who was first author on several metalens papers before leaving Harvard in 2017.

But the promise for the esoteric innovation beckoned, too. Federico Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics in whose lab the devices were developed, had long recognized that they had the potential to do everything conventional lenses could do and more, enabling new functionality in a smaller package for all kinds of advanced devices like those for handheld facial recognition that need to “see” and do so cheaply enough that they might disrupt an industry still making lenses as they long had been, out of curved elements of glass or plastic. But it would be a long road, one that illustrates the roadblocks scientists and entrepreneurs face between the light-bulb moment and actual products.

“That’s what I liked about Federico. He doesn’t listen to these guys,” said Khorasaninejad, who worked in Capasso’s lab for three years. “He told us, ‘Let’s focus on this.’ He gave us the resources; he gave us the guidance.”

While traditional lenses use curved glass or plastic to bend light and focus an image, a metalens uses a series of tiny pillars on a millimeter-thin wafer. Metalenz.

In early 2016, a team led by Capasso, with key contributions by Khorasaninejad, graduate student Rob Devlin, and postdoc Wei Ting Chen, showed that it indeed could be done and done well enough that commercial devices were possible. Capasso filed a report of invention with the Harvard Office of Technology Development and, soon after, the discovery made Science’s cover. Gordon, OTD’s director of business development for physical sciences, stepped in to manage the avalanche of interest.

“I’ve been doing this for far longer than I like to admit but that paper, the invention, and the patent we filed generated far more commercial interest — from companies, entrepreneurs, investors — than any other hard-tech invention I can remember,” said Gordon. “It was exciting and a bit shocking. We met and talked with a lot of people about this work.”

Those people understood then what Capasso had seen more than a decade earlier. Lenses are essential components in a host of devices, focusing and detecting light — both visible and invisible — for applications well beyond imaging, including facial recognition in smartphones and laptops, proximity and gesture detection to enhance responsive functions in automated devices, depth-sensing cameras, environmental awareness in drones and robots, and collision avoidance in self-driving cars.

In many of those devices, space is tight. The stacked elements of plastic or glass in traditional lenses have resisted the true miniaturization that most other components have undergone. They remain among the bulkier components, and a bottleneck in device design.

“I hold up my cellphone and pull out a credit card,” Gordon said, describing how he introduces the technology to potential investors. “There are only two reasons the phone is not as slim as the credit card. One is the camera and the other is the battery. The metalens will help enable the phone to be as slim as a credit card.”

While traditional lenses use curved glass or plastic to bend light and focus an image, a metalens uses a series of tiny pillars on a millimeter-thin wafer. The pillars are smaller than the wavelength of light and transparent to the desired wavelength. The pillars’ shape, the distances between them, and their arrangement on the wafer are varied to bend light as desired.

Not long after that Science cover, OTD licensed the technology to a startup, Boston-based Metalenz, founded by Capasso, Devlin, and Bart Riley, a tech entrepreneur with whom that office had previously worked. Now Metalenz’s chief executive, Devlin made a key materials advance in the Capasso lab that greatly improved the lenses’ efficiency. Earlier this year, Metalenz logged its first major sale, with manufacturer STMicroelectronics. STMicro will use metalenses in the company’s “time of flight” modules, which provide 3D sensing in an array of devices and which have previously sold 1.7 billion units. Those units appear in everything from drones to robots to smartphones. Metalenz said in June that it expects its optical components to be in millions of consumer devices this year.

Khorasaninejad, who today is CEO and cofounder of San Francisco-based Leadoptik, called the deal “a very, very strong endorsement from industry,” while Capasso said that the metalens can be made in the same factories as computer chips is potentially “game-changing,” as it unifies two industries: semiconductor manufacturing and lens-making.

“The same planar technology, known as deep ultraviolet lithography, to mass-produce integrated circuits — chips — can be used by the same foundry to make flat optics such as metalenses,” Capasso said. “It means that the entire camera module of a cellphone or laptop will eventually be manufactured in one sweep, including the metalens and the sensor.”

‘Can you get rid of the lens?’

Capasso came to Harvard in 2003 after a career at Bell Labs, where, in 1994, he and colleagues invented and developed the quantum cascade laser, currently being commercialized in devices for chemical sensing and spectroscopy.

Capasso traced the development of the metalens to a conversation he had more than a decade ago with Jim Anderson, the Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry. The two had been discussing putting a quantum cascade laser on a drone that Anderson wanted to use to detect certain chemicals in the atmosphere, but there wasn’t enough room. That was in part because of the bulky optical elements needed for focusing. Anderson got to the heart of the problem.

“He said, ‘Can you get rid of the lens?’” Capasso recalled. “My first reaction was, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ But then I said, ‘No, wait a moment.’”

Capasso started to brainstorm the idea with a couple of students in his group. Starting in 2007 or 2008, they began to focus on the scientific question of whether it was possible to bend light in an entirely flat device.

Early work used what they termed “plasmonic antennas” that eventually evolved into metasurfaces — millimeter-thick, two-dimensional surfaces studded with tiny nanostructures smaller than the wavelength of light. Those arrays, Capasso said, can alter the path of light flowing through it in a kind of “artificial refraction.”

That work progressed incrementally, producing several scientific papers that led to a 2011 breakthrough, published in Science and now cited more than 5,400 times. Capasso and members of his lab demonstrated they could tune the nanostructures and bend light to a roughly focused “hotspot.”

While the results were of scientific interest, the efficiency was so low that most of the light was lost, a result that skeptics said meant it would never become useful.

Bringing fresh eyes, new skills

In 2012, Devlin joined the lab. With no optics background, Devlin instead worked in an area Capasso thought would be key: materials science and nanofabrication. Devlin himself believed that the lab had mostly figured out the science, and that choosing the right materials and fabrication processes would be critical to improved results.

“The metasurface was a great proof of concept, but the devices themselves were really inefficient,” Devlin said. “There were problems in how it was fabricated, in materials, and design.”

Devlin set about considering materials and processes that not only worked in the lab, but that would also work, if a successful device needed to be scaled up. Ultimately, he settled on titanium dioxide, a compound widely used in paint pigment, sunscreen, food coloring, and as a reflective surface in dielectric mirrors. More importantly to Devlin, it had low light-absorption properties.

By late 2015, there were eight to 10 people in the lab working on different aspects of metasurfaces. As each turned their focus to lens performance, they brought perspectives and insights gleaned from their diverse prior efforts.

Devlin knew they had things right when the efficiency — the amount of the available light the device could focus — abruptly began to climb, rising from 10 percent to 85 percent in a few weeks. The rapid improvement and clarity of the resulting images stunned Devlin, Khorasaninejad, and Chen.

Those results spurred the 2016 Science paper, which not only generated a buzz in the lens industry, but also became a runner-up for Science’s breakthrough of the year. Despite the accolades and new belief in the promise of a metalens, it still focused just single wavelengths of light. And, while there were certainly uses for single-wavelength light — facial recognition, for example, is done by bouncing a single wavelength outside the visible spectrum off a person’s face and analyzing the light that returns — the next challenge was to produce the first “achromatic” metalens, one that focuses light across the visible spectrum.

“I locked myself in my office with Wei Ting Chen for the weekend, and I said, ‘Now we need to understand what we have done,’” Capasso said. “Our design ensured that all the colors, irrespective of where they take off, arrive at the same time in the same spot.”

It took two years, but in 2018, they became the first to report success, with high resolution.

In the meantime, though, Gordon was fielding calls from industry and advising Capasso and Devlin as to the next step of the metalenses’ commercial development. He counseled them that founding a startup around a new technology tends to be more successful than licensing it to a large corporation, where it can get lost. They listened and founded Metalenz to commercialize the invention and look for additional applications.

Devlin, meanwhile, had a decision to make. He had entered his graduate studies thinking he would pursue an academic track when he left Capasso’s lab. But he had the opportunity to be among the founders of Metalenz and shepherd the device’s development himself.

To Capasso, though, Devlin’s first priority was finishing the degree. He didn’t let up on the younger scientist, requiring he continue research and complete another scientific paper. Then Capasso ran interference with investors and companies wanting a piece of Devlin’s time.

“Federico made sure I was not abandoning the completion of my Ph.D.,” Devlin said. “He said, ‘No one is to contact Rob until he completes his dissertation.’”

Devlin defended his dissertation in 2017 and graduated in June 2018. When OTD and Metalenz announced the startup to the world in 2021, Devlin was its chief executive.

“The Ph.D. student is not always a CEO type, but some are, and Rob has shown he has the personality for it,” Gordon said.

The last several years have seen Devlin taking the company through several startup milestones, securing funds, developing relationships with manufacturers, and the recent announcement that the company’s metalenses will go into mass production.

Though Metalenz has licensed more than 20 Capasso lab patents from Harvard, Capasso and his students and postdocs are busily working on new discoveries. A current focus is on ultracompact, polarization-sensitive cameras — based on flat optics — that can detect the direction in which light vibrates after it’s transmitted or reflected, revealing otherwise invisible details of a scene. His group is involved with two collaborations with NASA on these cameras, related to Earth sciences and solar physics. He and his students are also toying with the idea of a “universal camera” that can see all properties of light at the same time, including ones that can’t be seen by existing cameras. Capasso described that challenge as “very ambitious.”

“We are here to learn, starting with me,” Capasso said. “I always tell students, ‘If you have something good, you have to give it away. Don’t keep it to yourself.’”

Science paper:

See the full article here .


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Harvard University campus

Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s best-known landmark.

Harvard University has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

The Massachusetts colonial legislature, the General Court, authorized Harvard University’s founding. In its early years, Harvard College primarily trained Congregational and Unitarian clergy, although it has never been formally affiliated with any denomination. Its curriculum and student body were gradually secularized during the 18th century, and by the 19th century, Harvard University (US) had emerged as the central cultural establishment among the Boston elite. Following the American Civil War, President Charles William Eliot’s long tenure (1869–1909) transformed the college and affiliated professional schools into a modern research university; Harvard became a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900. James B. Conant led the university through the Great Depression and World War II; he liberalized admissions after the war.

The university is composed of ten academic faculties plus the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Arts and Sciences offers study in a wide range of academic disciplines for undergraduates and for graduates, while the other faculties offer only graduate degrees, mostly professional. Harvard has three main campuses: the 209-acre (85 ha) Cambridge campus centered on Harvard Yard; an adjoining campus immediately across the Charles River in the Allston neighborhood of Boston; and the medical campus in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. Harvard University’s endowment is valued at $41.9 billion, making it the largest of any academic institution. Endowment income helps enable the undergraduate college to admit students regardless of financial need and provide generous financial aid with no loans The Harvard Library is the world’s largest academic library system, comprising 79 individual libraries holding about 20.4 million items.

Harvard University has more alumni, faculty, and researchers who have won Nobel Prizes (161) and Fields Medals (18) than any other university in the world and more alumni who have been members of the U.S. Congress, MacArthur Fellows, Rhodes Scholars (375), and Marshall Scholars (255) than any other university in the United States. Its alumni also include eight U.S. presidents and 188 living billionaires, the most of any university. Fourteen Turing Award laureates have been Harvard affiliates. Students and alumni have also won 10 Academy Awards, 48 Pulitzer Prizes, and 108 Olympic medals (46 gold), and they have founded many notable companies.


Harvard University was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1638, it acquired British North America’s first known printing press. In 1639, it was named Harvard College after deceased clergyman John Harvard, an alumnus of the University of Cambridge(UK) who had left the school £779 and his library of some 400 volumes. The charter creating the Harvard Corporation was granted in 1650.

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” It trained many Puritan ministers in its early years and offered a classic curriculum based on the English university model—many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge—but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. Harvard University has never affiliated with any particular denomination, though many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

Increase Mather served as president from 1681 to 1701. In 1708, John Leverett became the first president who was not also a clergyman, marking a turning of the college away from Puritanism and toward intellectual independence.

19th century

In the 19th century, Enlightenment ideas of reason and free will were widespread among Congregational ministers, putting those ministers and their congregations in tension with more traditionalist, Calvinist parties. When Hollis Professor of Divinity David Tappan died in 1803 and President Joseph Willard died a year later, a struggle broke out over their replacements. Henry Ware was elected to the Hollis chair in 1805, and the liberal Samuel Webber was appointed to the presidency two years later, signaling the shift from the dominance of traditional ideas at Harvard to the dominance of liberal, Arminian ideas.

Charles William Eliot, president 1869–1909, eliminated the favored position of Christianity from the curriculum while opening it to student self-direction. Though Eliot was the crucial figure in the secularization of American higher education, he was motivated not by a desire to secularize education but by Transcendentalist Unitarian convictions influenced by William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

20th century

In the 20th century, Harvard University’s reputation grew as a burgeoning endowment and prominent professors expanded the university’s scope. Rapid enrollment growth continued as new graduate schools were begun and the undergraduate college expanded. Radcliffe College, established in 1879 as the female counterpart of Harvard College, became one of the most prominent schools for women in the United States. Harvard University became a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900.

The student body in the early decades of the century was predominantly “old-stock, high-status Protestants, especially Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians.” A 1923 proposal by President A. Lawrence Lowell that Jews be limited to 15% of undergraduates was rejected, but Lowell did ban blacks from freshman dormitories.

President James B. Conant reinvigorated creative scholarship to guarantee Harvard University’s preeminence among research institutions. He saw higher education as a vehicle of opportunity for the talented rather than an entitlement for the wealthy, so Conant devised programs to identify, recruit, and support talented youth. In 1943, he asked the faculty to make a definitive statement about what general education ought to be, at the secondary as well as at the college level. The resulting Report, published in 1945, was one of the most influential manifestos in 20th century American education.

Between 1945 and 1960, admissions were opened up to bring in a more diverse group of students. No longer drawing mostly from select New England prep schools, the undergraduate college became accessible to striving middle class students from public schools; many more Jews and Catholics were admitted, but few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, Harvard became more diverse.

Harvard University’s graduate schools began admitting women in small numbers in the late 19th century. During World War II, students at Radcliffe College (which since 1879 had been paying Harvard University professors to repeat their lectures for women) began attending Harvard University classes alongside men. Women were first admitted to the medical school in 1945. Since 1971, Harvard University has controlled essentially all aspects of undergraduate admission, instruction, and housing for Radcliffe women. In 1999, Radcliffe was formally merged into Harvard University.

21st century

Drew Gilpin Faust, previously the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, became Harvard University’s first woman president on July 1, 2007. She was succeeded by Lawrence Bacow on July 1, 2018.