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Why Europe’s Competitive Advantage in Integrated Photonics is so important.

Mar 22, 2016 8:00:00 AM. By: High Tech Campus

Europe has proven its capacity to generate breakthrough innovations. Now, the new PhotonDelta initiative based in Eindhoven is leading the growth of Photonics Business Creation. Ewit Roos is PhotonDelta’s newly appointed Managing Director.

The role of photonics in the 21st Century.

“Photonics is the science of using and controlling photons—the smallest unit of light—to convey information and images” explains Ewit. “By shrinking electronic components like lasers and optical sensors to a scale hundreds of times smaller than a single living cell—and putting these components on a single platform—integrated photonics is already advancing technology in ways never before possible. It already represents 20% of the global electronics market."

“Photonics has risen from a niche activity just a few years ago to one of six Key Enabling Technologies in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program. It’s an established European success story and it’s been led by a cluster of activities in the Brainport Eindhoven region."

The Growing Competitive Landscape in Photonics

“The exponential demand for global bandwidth has meant that light has replaced copper as the enabler of the Internet.

In 2016, over 1 billion smartphones will be sold worldwide and each device needs access to a data centre. And by 2045, it’s estimated the world will need 1000 times the current capacity to process data. Existing semiconductor technology can’t keep up with this pace of change. So we need a different approach to cope with the growth, or plan hundreds of extra power stations to run these datacentres.”

Fortunately, a suite of technologies known as photonics has reached a tipping point and is already providing answers. New chips designs are leaving the clean-room and starting to scale up into a rapidly growing world business.

Thanks to pioneering work led by researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), the cost of manufacturing a photonics chip in Europe has dropped from €200,000 to around €10,000 – a dramatic difference which has opened up possibilities for both high-tech start-ups and small businesses.

The key breakthrough has been the development of a process design kit, which allows designers to create their chips without having to understand or re-invent the underlying technology.

High Tech Campus Eindhoven Photonics Photon Delta

Reducing the environmental impact of the Web.

Integrated Photonics technology is moving communications into the terabit era, dramatically increasing both data capacity and transmission speeds. It is also key to running exciting new applications that everyone knows already - streaming video, social media, cloud computing and voice over IP. What is less well known is that it is simultaneously reducing the Internet’s global carbon footprint and the overall cost per bit.

Photonics is also the engine driving other key areas

Photonics is also helping to revolutionize medicine and aviation – such as the development of “needleless” technologies for monitoring diabetics’ blood sugar levels and tiny cameras smaller than pills that can travel within arteries. Sensor applications in smart power grids, aircraft wings, autonomous cars, intelligent buildings and industrial process control will contribute significantly to more efficient use of resources and meeting today’s environmental challenges.

The ITU Radiocommunication Assembly in Geneva has noted that congestion and security issues in the radio frequency spectrum means that the use of visible light for short-range communications is receiving renewed attention. “LiFi” could replace WiFi sooner than we think.

Local Chip Fabrication is key

“Last September 2015 saw the launch of commercial Indium Phosphide chip production on High Tech Campus Eindhoven. The company, Smart Photonics, has developed a unique pure-play approach which dramatically cuts development costs and accelerates the time to market. Smart Photonics is at the heart of the commercial production ecosystem that we’re developing here in the region”.

PhotonDelta entered a new phase in February 2016 as its gears up to become a pro-active “business accelerator”. Its role is to link world-class photonics research with business, working to amplify existing initiatives.

Many tech companies need faster, cheaper and smarter technology solutions to keep up with their competitors. At the same time, the devices have to be robust, reliable and perform within rigorous specifications.

So PhotonDelta is building a Europe-wide “end-to-end ecosystem” of researchers, chip designers, foundries and software developers rising up to meet these challenges. Europe still has a head start over other continents by having an open ecosystem already in place and its ability to collaborate across the continent from day one.

“I believe a gauntlet has been thrown down by the big high-tech media companies. Google, Facebook, Twitter and others are challenging the integrated photonics industry to come up with new solutions. And they are already setting out their vision of what they expect both in price and speed. Whoever gets there first and scales efficiently will get access to a huge amount of business. “

Staying Light Years Ahead

On April 25, 2016, the Photonic Integration Symposium will take place at TU/e. It is the kick-off for several events taking place across Europe over the next few months as the newly established international PhotonDelta institute ramps up its activities.

“We're bringing a number of distinguished leaders in the Photonics field to explain what's been achieved so far and how we can best take integrated photonics forward.” says Ewit.

“Then on the 2nd and 3rd of June, High Tech Campus Eindhoven is involved in hosting the European Photonics Venture Forum. It will bring together entrepreneurs, investors, corporates and policy makers to discuss turning photonics into business, in association with the International Photonics Event. “

So, Europe can still maintain its leadership role? Ewit Roos is confident it can. “Europe has taught itself to collaborate efficiently, it has direction, a clear set of goals and an abundance of small, ambitious high-tech companies. Everything is in place for us to scale up.”

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