Europe has proven its capacity to generate breakthrough innovations. Now, Brainport Eindhoven, the leading high-tech region of the Netherlands, is highlighting the path to Photonics Business Creation. Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology have dramatically cut chip development costs, thus accelerating the time to market. This is particular good news for high-tech startups from all parts of the world, working in disruptive telecoms, healthcare and sensor technologies. Jonathan Marks went to investigate.
Quick Refresher: What is photonics and why should startups be interested?
Photonics is the science of using and controlling photons—the smallest unit of light—to convey information and images. 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.
Integrated Photonics manufacturing is the next step for this extremely important technology. It is already starting to revolutionize the carrying capacity of internet networks increasing it ten-fold and to transport information at far greater densities and much lower costs than can be attained with today’s technology.
Photonics is ubiquitous
Light waves are already part of our everyday life. Photonics is everywhere; in consumer electronics (barcode scanners, DVD players, remote TV control), telecommunications (Internet), health (eye surgery, cancer diagnosis, needle-less monitoring of blood sugar levels), manufacturing industries (precision laser cutting and machining), defence and border-control (infrared camera, remote sensing, radar)
Photonics is at the heart of the Internet highway that provides the bandwidth, speed, reach and flexibility needed to run exciting new applications that everyone knows – streaming video, virtual reality games, social media, cloud computing and “voice-over-IP” like Skype and Facetime. It’s the most energy efficient technology to scale up all these services.
Fast-Facts: Every smartphone needs to be connected
The exponential demand for bandwidth in our world means that light has replaced copper as the enabler of the Internet.
- A billion smartphones are being sold worldwide each year, each demanding access to a data centre.
- Every second, two households are being connected to the fibre-optic Internet infrastructure.
- And every 18 months, the amount of data doubles for each connection.
Big Challenges Demand Smart Solutions
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 data centres.
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 scaling up into a rapidly growing world business.
The cost of manufacturing a photonics chip in Europe has dropped from €200,000 to around €10,000 – a dramatic difference especially for 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.
Big Boost for US Photonics Industries
In July 2015, US Vice President Biden announced that the USA is investing €556 million in next-generation photonics manufacturing. It represents a major push to transform digital communications and high-performance computing at a time when the number of factories across the United States is growing for the first time since the 1990’s.
The US Department of Defense has awarded the new Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Integrated Photonics to a consortium of 124 companies, startups non-profits, and universities led by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York (RF SUNY). With a total investment of over €556 million—€100 million in federal funds, and more than €456 million in non-federal contributions— the new photonics institute is the largest public-private commitment so far for a manufacturing institute launched anywhere in the United States.
Headquartered in Rochester, NY, the long-time home of film and camera company Eastman Kodak, the new Department of Defense led manufacturing institute is intended to inject new life into the heart of upstate New York.
This is not the first time that the US Department of Defense has been involved in kick-starting high-tech. In tracing the real history of Silicon Valley, entrepreneur Steve Blank points out the crucial role Defense played in the 1950’s when pioneering communications technology companies in California switched from vacuum tubes to silicon chips. Large radar and defense communication contracts were essential to the area’s early development, long before venture capital came to Silicon Valley.
At the same time, because the defense department is driving the Photonics Institute for at least the next five years, international sales and collaboration by US companies may be delayed or halted because of export control restrictions. As the US Senator Charles Shumer points out, proposed legislation shows no split between military and non-military secrets.
So how does Europe feel about the US Investment?
Katarzyna Ławniczuk is the coordinator of JePPIX, a broker for Photonic Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), and an open global collaboration with more than 250 members. The organisation brings together Europe’s key Photonics chip designers, start-up companies, researchers and foundries. From her base in Eindhoven, she explains the significance of what’s just happened across the Atlantic in Rochester, New York.
“The developments in the US are really good news for everyone.” says Katarzyna. “The size of the investment is a strong endorsement that photonics research and photonics manufacturing has reached a tipping point on a worldwide scale. On the one hand, what’s been announced in Rochester can be seen as strong competition. But because this sector is expanding exponentially, we welcome the growth this initiative will bring”.
“It has also become clear that our efforts across the European Union are being followed very closely abroad. What we are doing at JePPIX has been recognised by colleagues in the States, especially our pioneering initiative of open access and collaborative innovation across the whole value chain.”
“JePPIX is growing in importance because we act as a pro-active catalyst, broker and trainer. We collect the latest relevant knowledge about photonics and share it with our partners. We collaborate with Europe’s key players in photonic integration; including manufacturing and packaging partners, photonic CAD software partners, R&D labs and photonic ICs design houses. Being located in the heart of R & D at Eindhoven University of Technology, means we’re surrounded by students and staff doing fundamental photonics research. We started commercial activities in 2014, so now we are making regular production runs. Anyone can follow our progress, as we publish a regularly updated road map.”
“We are also training a lot of people to go from designing an application concept right up to a master layout for a chip. In-depth on-line webinars often have more than 300 sign-ups to each session. Since the beginning of our open access activity in 2007, over 250 unique designs have gone through our Indium Phosphide IC development platforms. Students here also play a very important role. Many of the most innovative chip designs have been done by PhD students.”
“Sharing facilities is essential because few universities can afford to pay for these expensive technologies. You need “clean room conditions” in the Nanolab, as well as very complicated precision technologies to make and test these photonics chips. We believe that it is better to focus our efforts in areas where we have proven expertise, ensuring that a few fabs in Europe have world-class leading-edge facilities – but also provide others with access. That’s what we’ve done through JePPIX and our partner organisations.”
“Also, I believe the key to the success of Indium Photonics development was getting industry on board at a very early stage. The technology needs to be turned into business as soon as possible.”
The US announcement calls for “developing an end-to-end photonics ‘ecosystem’ in the U.S., including domestic foundry access, integrated design tools, automated packaging, assembly and testing, and workforce development”.
Many observers argue that by collaborating across borders, Europe still has a head start over other continents by having an open ecosystem already in place. They have had the ability to operate across the continent from day one. European collaborations like EuroPIC and PARADIGM have now matured into ACTPHAST and the Photonics accelerator LightJumps. These support organisations ensure that developments in European Photonics go even faster.
Mark your calendar for September 23rd
On Wednesday, September 23rd 2015, there will be a one-day summit at High Tech Campus Eindhoven dedicated to the huge business opportunities that lie ahead for Photonics. Several photonics startups from around Europe will be speaking and demonstrating.
The event will explore the journey of Photonics startup companies on their journey to becoming a global company. The meeting will also showcase surprising examples of what’s just round the corner.
The conference programme is in the advanced planning stage and there is an early-bird discount. More details at www.phiconference.com.
September’s event on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven will;
- Show that Photonics in Europe has risen from a niche activity to one of six Key Enabling Technologies in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 initiative. But to retain its competitive edge, continued public and private investment is important.
- Celebrate the pioneering work led by Eindhoven University of Technology and the international JePPIX ecosystem, in both the design and production of Photonics Integrated Circuits.
- Mark the start of commercial Indium Phosphide chip production using an approach which dramatically reduces the cost of entry for young Photonics companies. Eindhoven has democratised the process of Photonics chip production for the world, bringing about a 20-fold cost reduction in prototyping. This is great news for Photonics startups.
- Demonstrate the wide range of applications for Photonics in the next decade. The photonics business is ramping up to include big data applications, sensors, medical diagnostics, high-precision spectroscopy and antenna systems.
- Explain why accelerating this industry through strategic investment is important now. Photonics is a European success story of open collaboration, and proof that selecting it as a key enabling technology was the right decision. It’s rapidly becoming one of the most important “scale up” industries, crucial to future growth and job creation on a regional, national and international level.