Making the most of an emerging market worth billions of Euros
We have entered a new phase of integrated photonics development. Light has long since left the lamp and has entered a new rapid business creation phase. A lot of credit goes to visionaries at Eindhoven University of Technology for their pioneering research and business vision on how to scale this. Photonics technology is in the process of quietly disrupting many traditional electronics markets. It started in telecommunications and datacentres. But now. it’s spreading to sectors like precision measurements, sensing, aerospace, automotive, health-care and defence. StartupDelta's Jonathan Marks has an engaging conversation with Richard Visser, the founder of Smart Photonics. They talked about what this scale-up has achieved so far, including the business opportunities to be discussed at an international Photonics business conference later this month.
The Early Days – A different vision
“Five years ago, I was working with Philips Innovation Services” explains Visser. “Just like many electronics multinationals, Philips was going through a re-organization and one of the business decisions made by their management was to close their photonics division. It was no longer part of what they defined as the new core business.”
“Of course, that news came as more than a bit of shock. You can also imagine I didn’t share that opinion. We were busy designing cutting-edge lasers for the telecoms industry. We had established ourselves as a reliable player in making operational lasers from a design supplied by the customer and then developing them through the “proof of concept phase” right up until production.
Shining Light on the Trends
“We've known for years that the global telecoms industry strategy was to increase the bandwidth between data centres and their customers. Three things were happening.
- Dial-up modems gave way to ADSL and then along came glass-fibre to the home. In the space of a few years, downloading HD video quality content in real time became something that many people in Western Europe and East Asia took for granted. South Korea led the way in the bandwidth and Internet speed boom – but The Netherlands was always close behind.
- Smart phones, led by Apple’s iPhone, were already having a huge impact around the world. Sales were exponential and Apple’s main profit centre was mobile devices rather than the Mac. But each of those millions of devices needed to be connected to something in order to function.
- We could see that light, rather than copper, had become the enabling technology to make this happen.
An unexpected offer emerges
One of the customers from Philips was Eindhoven University of Technology. And they immediately expressed an interest, not only to acquire the highly sophisticated equipment we had, but also the deep understanding of photonics applications. Their researchers were also cooperating with Philips Photonics lab to develop their integration technology, making use of the clean room at Phillips innovation services on the High Tech Campus, the former Philips Research park.
“In late 2011, I got a call from Professor Ton Backx, Dean of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. Ton explained that Integrated Photonics was a key enabling technology that they had been working on for the last 15 years. They had developed methods to open up this technology to the world. They had expected that Philips was going to bring that technology to market, but now they were looking for a plan B. There was an instant click in making this happen.”
“We decided to form a startup, developing what today we would call a “business model canvas”. With the backing from the University, we founded the company Smart Photonics on March 6th 2012. As I researched the world market, I soon discovered a whole new set of possibilities were opening up. We were also extremely lucky to have just the right expertise in the right place at the right time.”
Putting many designs onto a single wafer has democratized Indium Phosphide photonics
The A-team of Photonics Creation
“Startups know that their success is linked to the quality of the team. We were particularly fortunate to find two people to join our startup at the beginning. Peter Thijs is a world-renowned specialist in epitaxial growth and Luc Augustin, is a pioneer in the new generic technology for integration of photonic components. Epitaxial growth is the process whereby you grow the optical layers, which are at the heart the component being manufactured. In addition to gaining research knowledge, we assembled business expertise in turning designs into operational devices.
Deciding on the best business strategy – staying independent
“Like any high-tech startup, we discussed the different business models we could take. But we quickly saw the huge benefits of what’s called the “foundry model”. Firstly, we had access to the best tools to manufacture the integrated circuits. But, just as important, we had expertise in the entire process from design through to finished production wafers or even coated bars of chips. And we built a customer network who needed photonic solutions.”
“This approach meant we had customers from our first day of operation. So Smart Photonics only makes the products using designs from our customers. We are independent. The fact that we don't make our own products means there is no conflict of interest in the market. We've seen this go wrong in the mobile handset market, when Company X was making screens for Company Y, and yet competing with Company Y at the same time.”
Big returns on the horizon
“Our independence has proved to be very important for everyone. In high-end photonics, we're talking about an extremely costly development process until the chip design is finalized and is then ready for mass-production. We assumed, correctly, that small companies working at the forefront of technology would be reluctant to work with large foundries, especially if there was even a slight chance that their intellectual property could be adapted and later used to compete against them in the market. Likewise, large foundries were not keen to share their key technologies because external customers could become competitors. We could see a situation that was actually slowing down the tipping point of Photonics, rather than building a trusted network. So we chose a different approach.”
"We also learned to master the complete process of chip manufacturer, including building close relationships with Europe's best photonics designers and understanding the steps after chips are made."
Phase 2 launches at an international conference on September 23rd
Smart Photonics is expanding its services in September 2015. They are opening the second phase of their manufacturing facility located in a purpose-built clean-room on the High-Tech Campus Eindhoven.
“The "genes" of an integrated photonics chip are made in our new facility,” says Richard. “The lasers, amplifiers, phase-shifter are all formed at this stage; in effect you're turning a piece of Indium phosphide into a component that has functionality.“
“This new cleanroom allows Smart Photonics to scale-up production – the wafers in the research facility are 2-inch, the new facility works with 3-inch. So, chip designs that have been tested and validated in the Nanolab research centre at Eindhoven University of Technology can now be produced in larger quantities at a cheaper unit price.”
“This means that as our photonics customers scale up their production, we can scale-up with them with the production of the photonic chips.”
“There are only a handful of companies in the world that have a similar offering. But I believe our unique position is that we're combining these facilities with our trusted expertise for the sole benefit of our customers.”
Trusted partners are key
“We've been able to build trusted partnerships with some very clever high-tech companies around the world. They make a huge investment in design. And we've invested a lot in the equipment to turn that design into a component. It means Smart Photonics is more than a factory because building the machinery isn't enough”.
“The expertise is just as valuable and that's built into the relationship we have built over the years with our customers. So whereas others work FOR their clients, we believe it is more like working WITH them. And, when you're working with designs that often run into the millions, each party needs to have 1000% confidence in the reliability of the other. Yes, I do mean 1000%!”
“Our expertise comes in turning designs into real devices. Our team has a deep understanding of how it works. For example, if you wanted to make a laser with an operating wavelength of 1550 nm, with a specified power, our specialists like Peter Thijs can quickly turn that specification into an epitaxial layer stack ready for manufacture. That sort of expertise is difficult to find, which is why I'm so pleased we've been able to retain and grow the photonics knowledge we started at Philips. It can turn a brain drain into a brain gain for this region of the Netherlands.”
“The equipment to do all this isn't cheap – think, for a full production facility, in the region of €100 million. That's because you're working with nanotechnology in cleanroom conditions. And the machines to grow and process the chips have to be built to order – you can't order them from a catalogue. They also require regular maintenance.”
Scaling up has already started
“We already have around 40 customers across the world, both small and very, very large. Many are preparing the technology infrastructure that global society will use in around 2020. It takes time and vision to make these giant leaps.”
“These people no longer just talk about Fibre to the Home (FTTH), these companies are talking about FTTX. It's a world where most devices are going to be connected to the Internet”.
“All this will demand at least double the global bandwidth in use today by 2020. This isn't a vague prediction. As Africa and Latin America come online, their prosperity is linked to exponential growth at this stage. So the demand for mass production is just around the corner.”
“Of course, we can never be complacent. But you can see by the smile on my face that these are exciting times to be in the Integrated Photonics Business. I look forward to revealing more details at a Photonics business conference being held in Eindhoven on September 23rd. If your startup is thinking about using light in its technology, you'll definitely find this of interest."