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“Solidify Canada's role as global leader in photonics”

Canada has a vibrant, growing photonics industry of more than 400 companies and numerous scientific institutions spread across the country. In the province of Québec alone, around 220 companies employing over 22 000 people contribute over 3 billion Dollar to the GDP annually. A good third of the companies have sprung within the last ten years, namely thanks to Québec’s strong scientific core, which includes a network of R&D centers and 8 universities. Photonics is also considered a key industry in other parts of the country, and the government is driving its development with strategic investments. In this interview, Dr. Madison Rilling, Executive Director of the OPTONIQUE cluster, and Dr. Michael Davison, Head of Business Development at the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre (CPFC), trace the development of their industry and identify its most important drivers.

Ms. Rilling, would you like to briefly introduce OPTONIQUE to us?

Dr. Madison Rilling: With pleasure. In French, we are recognized as the “Pôle d'excellence en optique-photonique du Québec”—a cluster organization allowing our photonics industry to come together, network and find a common voice in political and public discourse. The initiative to create our provincial cluster in 2017 originated from the industry itself. Today. more than 220 companies in the province of Québec are active in developing, producing, offering, or applying photonic solutions; this makes up about 50% of Canada’s photonics industry. At Optonique, we offer them a platform that connects all key industry players and partners, namely start-ups, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), multinationals, research institutes and universities. Our cluster benefits from government support at the municipal level as well as from the provincial and federal governments; each level of government recognizes photonics as a key technology with high strategic importance as well as a driving force for sustainable economic growth. For our member companies, we serve as a gateway to international markets, both by accompanying them in their export efforts and establishing strategic collaborations with international partners. Locally, we promote the enabling potential of their technologies, namely to other industries which can benefit from their adoption but also to the public at large. We make our industry better known through outreach initiatives and draw attention to the wide range of career options. However, attracting talent is not enough: to counteract the shortage of skilled workers, we also work together with industry and education partners to develop upskilling and reskilling opportunities. Long story short, we at Optonique are a team of technical experts and serve as a link between the photonics industry and the outside world—i.e., politics, business, education, research, and the public.

Mr. Davison, what is behind the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre (CPFC)—and who can access its production infrastructure?

Dr. Michael Davison: The CPFC is a pure III-V semiconductor foundry with state-of-the-art production and measurement technology operated by the National Research Council of Canada. As the only pure play publicly operated compound semiconductor foundry in North America, we make our expertise and infrastructure available to companies and research institutes. Our experienced team specializes in the design and fabrication of devices made from indium phosphide (InP), gallium arsenide (GaAs), gallium nitride (GaN) and other materials. We support customers in proofs-of-concept and prototyping, set up new production processes that they can evaluate on pilot systems and evolve to the mass-market stage in our facility. Our services also include the design and manufacture of photonic integrated circuits (PICs) and discrete photonic devices including lasers (DFB, BHET), detectors, amplifiers, and modulators. This is a 40,000 square foot facility with an additional 20,000 square feet under construction. A unique feature is the close link between academic research and commercial orientation: we make the latest technological approaches commercially viable—and thus realize photonic futures. Our customers are small to medium-sized businesses, multinationals and research institutes that push the boundaries of what is possible. Another focus is on international cooperation and collaboration projects.

CPFC was awarded $90 million in funding in 2022. What will the money be used for?

Davison: If the supply of modern microchips falters, it has a major impact on all sectors of the economy. Because of the high strategic importance of the sector, the Government of Canada announced the Semiconductor Challenge Callout. Through the Strategic Innovation Fund, $150 million will be dedicated to targeted investments to build on Canada’s domestic strengths associated with the development and supply of semiconductors. In addition to the Semiconductor Challenge Callout, the Government of Canada is also supporting a $90 million revitalization of the CPFC. We are aiming to leverage that funding to quadruple our capacity by 2025, because when customers develop their most innovative products with us and manufacture them in Canada, it strengthens our entire ecosystem. The CPFC investment is about solidifying Canada's role as a global leader in photonics, and we are very effective in making our clients successful. They come here from all over the world because we are one of the few facilities that can bridge the gap between laboratory-scale innovations and reproducible industrial processes, while meeting the highest standards of quality, reliability, and repeatability. We advise and support our customers along the entire process chain, from the selection of the appropriate wafer structure to chip and process design, scaling, and integration. This is more in demand than ever in the semiconductor market.

How do you proceed?

Davison: One approach is to collect more process data and use it to optimize the production of customized chips more quickly and accelerate the path to reliable production. To ensure that the necessary standardization does not come at the expense of design flexibility and functionality in the application, we are pursuing a modular approach. The CPFC has a library of proven reference designs, including manufacturing implementation, from which we can mine for new process chains. Even if we break new ground with our customers, we can minimize innovation risks by recombining proven designs and processes.

OPTONIQUE can rely on government funding. Does that also apply to your member companies and the many photonics start-ups?

Rilling: The city and the province of Québec, like the federal government, are aware of the importance of photonics as an innovation driver across multiple industries. Because of this, we benefit from direct funding and strategic support programs aimed at longer-term economic development - for example, for the development of a skilled workforce or targeted R&D initiatives. Through these programs and a network of support organizations, our startups benefit from an ecosystem that supports them in every phase of their growth. For example, there are specialized incubators and accelerators that focus on photonic and quantum technologies, such as Quantino in Québec City. For scale-ups that grow beyond these centers, there exists a range of offerings to support anything from in-house and collaborative R&D to export strategies. Many programs support public-private partnerships, bringing together universities and companies. Some opportunities are problem or challenge-driven innovation projects, meaning that start-ups and SMEs can offer new technological solutions for rapid adoption. In such cases, our cluster often serves as a catalyst: we know the industry and its portfolio of expertise—and can bring the right partners together.

What are the strengths of Canada's photonics industry?

Rilling: Our diversity makes us strong. Canadian research and industry have contributed significantly to the telecommunications revolution based on optical fibers and lasers since the late 1960s. In the later 60s, Jacques A. Beaulieu developed the first CO2-TEA Laser (High-Power Transverse-Excitation Atmospheric Pressure Gas Laser) right here at the defense R&D center just outside of Québec City. Significant contributions in the field of optoelectronics and sensor technology also came from our universities. In Québec alone, eight universities participate in photonics research, which make up a strategic research cluster known as the Center for Optics, Photonics and Lasers (COPL). From institutions like these across Canada, our National Optics Institute known as INO, the National Research Council (NRC) without forgetting the legacy of Canada’s telecom giant Nortel, dozens of businesses have spun off throughout the years, contributing to the diversity of the industry. In Québec, each of our 220 companies is offering their photonic applications in three to four different industries. That alone shows the large spectrum of photonic activity here. I see strengths around optical fibers and fiber lasers, in imaging and sensor technology, optics and increasingly in integrated photonics. Thanks to strategic investments, quantum technologies are also developing dynamically, building on Québec’s and Canada’s strong photonics core. With its diversity, the Canadian photonics industry is making considerable contributions to modern process and key value chains—and contributes to strengthening the country’s economic resilience.

Davison: Traditionally, the telecom sector has had long-standing R&D strength in Canada. Research done at the CPFC has found its way into many industries. The range of applications is becoming ever broader: precision farming in agriculture, environmental technology, climate research, the development of autonomous vehicles and aircraft all rely on optical sensors. Airplanes and helicopters can use photonic gyroscopes to determine their position in the air with centimeter precision. Lasers and optical sensors have become indispensable in smartphones and consumer electronics. They are based on mature manufacturing processes that are now adopting photonic integrated circuits (PICs) for the mass market.

For which fields of application are PICs interesting from your point of view?

Davison: Until now, the lion's share of the cost of photonic systems has been for assembly and packaging. As we integrate more functionality on a single chip, assembly processes will be eliminated, and application device modules become smaller. These advantages in integration drive process development technologies to maintain high yield per wafer and keep chip costs down. There is still work to be done here. But the performance of PICs is increasing rapidly. It is now possible to integrate a light source, waveguides and powerful modulators and subcomponents on chips. This holds disruptive potential. The small, high-performance optical chips directly from the wafer can unleash enormous innovation momentum in areas such as data centers, which have long since challenged the limits of their transmission capacity, power consumption, cooling requirements, and installation space. New PIC-based architectures are already providing a remedy. This is not a dream of the future because it is happening here and now. PICs are also finding their way into LiDAR sensors for vehicles and aircraft, smartphones, and medical technology.

What innovation priorities do you observe among startups in Québec?

Rilling: Our government is currently supporting the development of three innovation hubs with a focus on (1) quantum technologies for communications, sensor technology or computing, on (2) semiconductors and digital technologies, as well as on (3) batteries and CleanTech. In all of these, startups, SMEs and large businesses are enthusiastically pushing and positioning photonic solutions. These hubs are facilitating access to funding and venture capital for start-ups active in these sectors. Fortunately, we are also seeing the focus of some photonics startups shifting toward climate and environmental protection, namely for forest fire monitoring.

To what extent is Canada's photonics industry export-oriented and are your organizations open to international collaborations and partnerships?

Rilling: Our member companies generate an average of two-thirds of their sales through exports. Québec and Canada have an impressive network of trade offices around the world, namely in Munich and Berlin, and they are key partners for our cluster in catalyzing international collaborations and establishing strategic partnerships, as we are currently doing in PICs. We regularly exhibit at trade fairs such as the LASER World of PHOTONICS, where we host the Canadian pavilion. For international startups, there are programs available for them to integrate academic-affiliated incubators. If anyone wants to learn more about our companies and our photonic ecosystem here in Québec and Canada, I encourage them to reach out to my team at Optonique!

Davison: The CPFC regularly conducts projects as part of international collaborations, including our involvement in the Eureka program. We also have multiple collaborations with the EU and EU countries, which involve SMEs and research institutes. These international collaborations are becoming increasingly important. To secure the supply of semiconductor and compound semiconductor production, and important raw materials in the long term, we need to reduce existing dependencies and leverage strategic opportunities with our allies.