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The light in the cloud: A snapshot of photonics in Europe

Photonics, as a discussion subject, has been in the shadows for a long time. A quick look at Google Trends, which scans for news headlines, shows that there are five times more search queries for “cloud computing” than “photonics”.

Yet, just like cloud computing, it is as ubiquitous (but invisible) and essential to our day-to-day lifestyle. It's also difficult to grasp and understand. What’s more, the sector is booming with analysts expecting the global photonics-related market to reach a staggering $481 billion globally and more than half a trillion Dollars within three years.

In a nutshell, photonics is an enabling technology category that is not tied to a particular industry. Photonics underpins everything from lasers, LEDs and solar panels to cancer treatment and food safety. There are two ways of visualising photonics; either an emission-modulation/optics-detection paradigm or one where electricity becomes light and vice versa.

The US leads the way with around 35,000 companies in photonics but the old continent is not far behind with Germany, the UK and France together hosting more than 13,000 photonics firms. In Europe, photonics represents a market of more than $77 billion with more than 5,000 companies operating in the industry and employing nearly 300,000 people.

On Wednesday and Thursday, a biennial event called Invest in Photonics, allowed ITProPortal, the only mainstream tech news outlet invited, to take a peek at what’s happening in photonics across Europe and the world, not only from the technology perspective but also crucially from the venture capitalists (like Samsung Ventures), well-known tech companies (Philips, Carl Zeiss) and the European Commission.

Over the two days, 19 emerging European photonics companies, covering areas as diverse as clean technology, healthcare and holographic displays, pitched to investors in a bid to attract more than $90 million of investment. The event was held in Bordeaux, the capital city of the Aquitaine region, which is rapidly becoming a hub for everything photonics in France.

Coincidentally, just before the start of the event, IBM briefly propelled photonics into the limelight by announcing a significant breakthrough in the realm of silicon photonics. For the first time ever, different optical components were laid out side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using a traditional 90nm manufacturing process.

The tone of IBM's press release matched the general level of enthusiasm at the event. Photonics is on the cusp of something big.

Many of the keynote speakers at the event highlighted the fact that venture capitalists may not actually be a good fit for photonics startups. Photonics ventures tend to necessitate high level of investments/capital expenditure, take time to reach maturity and do not always generate high returns, a stance highlighted by Alessio Beverina of Sofinnova Partners, one of the biggest independent VCs in Europe. He also disclosed the fact that he receives on average one business plan or request for financing every day and only invests in one company per year, that’s a rejection rate of 99.7 per cent.

Instead, startups are encouraged to explore other alternative sources either from existing leading private companies like Intel, Google, Samsung or Alcatel or from public entities like the European Commission. Indeed, Laurent E. Le Gourrierec who is Coreporate CTO for networking giant Alcatel-Lucent, pointed out that VC investment in photonics represents only five per cent of the total investment in the market with big corporations investing billions in R&D budgets.

Ian Henks, chairman of Intune Networks, provided an interesting infographic that charts the new types of buyer (or potential investors) for photonics startups, listing the likes of Google and Microsoft among many. Google, Henks reminded us, is already operating as a telco having deployed a 1Gbps fiber network in Kansas while Microsoft sells Kinect, the context-aware peripheral for the Xbox 360, which makes extensive use of photonics technology.

Apple could also be a potential candidate with the iPhone containing 13 photonics-related technologies and prompting Stephen Anderson, an industry and market analyst for SPIE, to call the device, one enabled by photons. Add this to the fact that one server is needed for every 600 smartphones or 120 tablets (according to Intel) and one can see the interest Apple may have in the domain.

This is probably the common thread that ran through the keynotes at Invest in Photonics. Despite being used as a red herring during the Internet bubble at the beginning of the millennium, there is still a massive need for investment in photonics R&D, especially as the amount of data being (we’re already in the Exabyte - 10^18 - era) exchanged on a global scale grows exponentially.

Desire worked at ITProPortal right at the beginning and was instrumental in turning it into the leading publication we all know and love today. He then moved on to be the Editor of TechRadarPro - a position he still holds - and has recently been reunited with ITProPortal since Future Publishing's acquisition of Net Communities.