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Photonics: US Startups should consider partnering with Europe's open ecosystem

Oct 9, 2015 10:53:00 AM. By: High Tech Campus

High Tech Campus Eindhoven recently hosted more than 100 leading photonics integration specialists from 12 countries. They met to take stock of the story so-far and discuss possible routes to expansion. For this is an industry that’s fast becoming the backbone technology of today’s Internet.

We spoke with Michael Lebby, CEO of OneChip Photonics. He is one of the world’s leading experts in photonics chip production. He has strong opinions on how European photonics companies should maintain their lead.

First past the post will dominate

“I am very optimistic that integrated photonics will scaleup, creating business opportunities for many companies”, says Michael. “But the communications market is nothing like it was 25 years ago. Those were the days of Bell Labs and huge telecom monopolies demanding 20-year reliability. Now, whoever comes up with photonics solutions first and scales them efficiently will command a giant bucketful of business from the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook. There won’t be high profit margins. But there will be enormous volume.”

All this puts pressure on the global photonics community to come up with different approaches.

Completely new players with new demands

“The situation in 2015 is that companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook are running on advertising dollars. They want to deliver traffic to everybody and they want to do it as efficiently as possible.”

“One analogy is to think of the photonics guys as the ‘plumbers of the communications industry’. Their clients and users in the data-centre sector don't want to pay much for the piping that connects things together or the data that flows through. So you have to ask, how will the photonics suppliers achieve this goal and yet be profitable?”

It’s clear that just extrapolating current technology is not going to work. In fact, a gauntlet has been thrown down by these big high-tech media companies to come up with smarter solutions.

New opportunities dawn for Europe

“If you look at where the investment has been made over the last 15-20 years, the answer is mostly Europe and little bit in Japan.”

“The Brainport Eindhoven region has certainly been a driving force in bringing teams and initiatives together for integrated photonics, both locally and across the continent.”


But can it maintain that lead? The Obama administration recently announced US$ 610 Million is to be invested in the new Photonics Manufacturing Institute in Rochester, NY State.

Exponential Growth, backed by billions

“I believe the large customers are more concerned about the price than what technology is inside the box” explains Michael. “So, although a few hundred million dollars sounds like a lot for the new US Photonics initiative, in fact it is simply an early stage ‘foot in the door’. Europe has already invested this kind of money in the industry and you are starting to see the results.

“Remember that the US government has decided to fund a vertical manufacturing model in Rochester. There is still a lot we don't know. I'm sure big silicon fabs will benefit. But what about the disruptive ‘little guys’? I think some US high-tech startups and SME's busy with breakthrough technologies may benefit by looking to collaborate with European partners and take advantage of its collaborative open source model.”


A lot of data

“It’s not cheap, but neither is it outrageously expensive to develop new chip designs. It gives smaller European companies like Effect Photonics a chance to grow. And chip manufacturing companies like Smart Photonics are definitely ones to watch. They recently announced an impressive vision for scaling-up on the High Tech Campus between now and 2018.”

“We know that to really scale up this industry, you need tens of billions of dollars. But everything is in place in Europe to maintain a leadership role. The open question is whether Europe can get the IBM's, Cisco’s and Intel’s of this world to put in the money. Personally, I think it is a challenge worth accepting. Europe has taught itself to collaborate efficiently, it has direction, a clear set of goals and lots of small, flexible innovative companies.”

“By creating an end-to-end ecosystem with designers, fabs and packing companies working together within the same region you create a ‘one-stop shop’  for those building novel applications. It’s an ecosystem which is difficult to copy, leading to a brain-gain rather than a brain-drain.”

For people like Michael Lebby, the mid-term future is becoming clearer.

“You will see electronics closely integrated with photonics. There are various approaches to realize this. But I'm sure we'll soon figure out the best technologies. Because, integration is going to be essential to get the costs down and keep customers happy!”

Photonics applications will feature prominently in the Health Tech Event to be held on Campus on November 24th.

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