November 9, 2016
“Photonics offer multiple opportunities for growth”
Mark Webster has been Chief Executive Officer of the UK based global photonics company Gooch & Housego since 2015. In our interview he talks about the management challenges of rapidly growing technology firms, trends in life sciences and next generation satellite communications. We discuss the reasons why, in spite of Brexit, UK photonics businesses should be positive about the future.
Mr. Webster, would you please introduce Gooch & Housego?
Mark Webster: Gooch & Housego is a broad based photonics company. In total we employ 760 people in nine manufacturing sites; five in the United States and four in the United Kingdom. They work closely with OEM companies or with other, smaller, cutting edge companies. We do our own research and cooperate closely with our customers. Additionally we have a broad variety of products from smaller, bespoke solutions in the field of acousto-, electro-, fiber- or precision optics, satellite communications or nuclear fusion right through to volume manufacturing; e.g. in our undersea telecommunications business we are producing tens of thousands of pieces.
You joined Gooch & Housego in 2012 after a career in healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. Why did you move into the field of photonics technology?
Photonics is a fascinating area. The healthcare industry is more mature whereas photonics is still a young industry and offers multiple possibilities and faster growth. I have a science background and I saw the opportunities and feel I can rise to the challenge of making a success of a photonics company. I joined G&H as a non-executive director and was on the board for two and half years before I became CEO. We have a life science division and I’m particularly interested in medical diagnostics, an area where I have some experience. I bring in the skills needed to manage rapid growth in companies. We have doubled our revenue over the last five years. You need to put structure and process in, when you get bigger—but have to keep the magic…
Photonics aids development in life science technology. Do you see further potential to grow in this sector?
Absolutely! There are multiple opportunities for growth even in the few fields that we´re working in. Laser surgery be it cosmetic, eye or prostate surgery or tattoo removal. Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) which is used for 3D imaging in ophthalmology—and where we see lots of opportunities for OCT in other areas such as cancer diagnosis, cardiovascular diagnosis or even OCT-guided surgery. We also see trends towards personalized medicine and other diagnostic applications that are strong fit with photonics. There are multiple areas and you really have to pick a few that you want to focus on.
With an understanding of both markets, what do you think about the upcoming trend of virtual reality and visualization software in diagnosis and microscopy?
It’s a super opportunity but not one that we´re particularly focused on at the moment. It looks very interesting for scientific research, training and education of medical staff or the broad field of guided surgery.
As you already said, Gooch & Housego offers a broad range of products. Which of those you will focus on LASER World of PHOTONICS 2017 in Munich?
Our bread and butter certainly is manufacturing components for laser materials processing. We´ve recently introduced a germanium acousto-optic modulator and driver. Also UV-systems, acousto-optic beam deflectors for high speed scanning applications, shortwave infrared (SWIR) lens modules, where we recently introduced a 25 mm lens and will perhaps show a new 12.5 mm lens in Munich. Another area of focus will be sensing and precision instrumentation used in smartphone and tablet manufacturing as well as in other areas of microelectronic manufacturing.
Components of your company seem to be everywhere. Is it hard to manage such a technological flea circus?
We have to focus and make decisions. It would be a mistake to focus on too many areas and so choose to optimize our products in areas we can offer most value to the customer. When I took over as CEO, I looked at all the products that we were developing and producing across all of our sites. It was quite a high number. We have decided to do fewer things but resource them better.
What did you focus on?
One of the areas that we decided to focus on is satellite communications. Because it is an area, where there is a breakthrough going on right now. There is a move from microwave radiofrequency technology through to fiber optic and laser based technology. The beauty of that is, that the fiber-based communication tends to be more reliable, efficient and robust in difficult environments and it is lighter, which is a key question in space.
What are the drivers of the breakthrough?
The trend leads to much smaller satellites, so payload is a major factor in satellite system development. Hundreds or even thousands of them will be launched to create satellite networks. They will need reliable communication technology.
What else do you focus on?
Other areas that we focus on are laser systems for manufacturing with high repetition rate and ultrashort pulses. We try to identify the markets where our knowhow can make the biggest contribution and focus on them. That´s not easy when you discuss with enthusiastic technicians who create lots and lots of ideas.
Digitalization and the internet of things are major trends in industry. In how far do they influence your manufacturing sites or R&D-activities?
We do look at that and are indirectly involved through the industrial solutions that we deliver. Across our sites we are running a major lean manufacturing project. We are looking at how we can improve the efficiency of our manufacturing. We recently received a grant from the Sharing in Growth Initiative of the UK Government to set up our manufacturing in the most efficient and lean way. In order be successful, you have to have better information and feedback systems. Automatization is challenging in photonics because of scale but we are trying to do as much as we can.
One last topic: How will BREXIT influence the future of UK Photonics Business in general and the future of Gooch & Housego?
About 70 percent of our business is in US Dollars and less than 10 percent is in Euros. In the short term, we´re beneficiaries of the losses in value of the British pound. The key thing: We are operating in markets where there might only be two or three companies, who can do what we can do. And in some cases like nuclear fusion reactors we´re the only company. We are highly specialized and have very close relations to our customers. They know and they trust us, and their quality management systems are compatible with ours. I´ve not changed my investment plans at all. When I think of UK photonics business in general, then I think many companies are in a similar position. Photonics may not be as effected as some other industries since we are highly specialized and operating in fast growing areas. We are positive about the future.