Eastern Europe is strongly represented at the LASER World of PHOTONICS. The photonics industry is on the rise there, thanks in part to a dynamic startup scene that has its roots in universities and research societies. In focus this time: Poland.
When the LASER World of PHOTONICS kicks off in five days, (April 26-29, 2022) also half a dozen Eastern European countries will be represented. But if Crys-Teh LLC from the recently embattled Ukrainian city of Dnipro will come to Munich is uncertain. Therefore, spot on: The start-up specializes in growing and processing tellurium dioxide (TeO₂) crystals that are used in acousto-optic modulators (AOM) and polarization optics.
“We stand with Ukraine” also goes out to team Crys-Teh. Blue-and-yellow backed, almost all Eastern European LASER exhibitors express their solidarity. Since February 24, the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, their countries have bordered the war zone. Since then, Poland alone took in 2.3 million war refugees. That modernized Poland, whose Solidarność movement in the 1980s played a major role in the fall of the Iron Curtain—and in which a highly modern photonics industry has been growing ever since. The 36 leading companies, universities, and research institutes are clustered on the Polska Platforma Technologiczna Fotoniki (PPTF). Seven of them will be represented at LASER 2022 on the Polish joint booth (Hall B4.431). In parallel, the individual exhibitors Solaris Optics, Perspectiva Solutions and VIGO Photonics will have their own stands.
The Polish photonics industry is networked around a scientific core formed by more than a dozen faculties of Warsaw University of Technology and the Warsaw Military University of Technology (WAT) as well as the universities of Wrocław, Krakow, Gdansk, Lublin, and Toruń. Globally networked, research groups there conduct basic research in photonics, quantum-physics, and optoelectronics as well as application-oriented research. The latter is primarily the responsibility of the Łukasiewicz Research Network with its 32 institutes. These include the Institute of Microelectronics and Photonics in Warsaw, which was established in 2020 from the merger of the Institute for Electron Technology, founded in 1966, and the Institute for Electronic Materials, which has been in place since 1978. As early as the 1950s, Poland began to develop semiconductor and microelectronics manufacturing, to which the institutes then provided crucial know-how.
Many photonics companies that have emerged since the 1990s have their origins in this scientific core. Among them are the two medium-sized companies Solaris Laser and Solaris Optics. The latter is a globally active specialist for lenses, mirrors, filters, and various other optical components, that provides outstanding know-how in thin film coating. Among them: infrared optics. It is in the infrared sector, that PPTF’s Director of Operations, Maciej J. Nowakowski, sees a Polish strength. “We have a long research tradition in near- and mid-infrared detection,” he says. Building on that, he says, global technology leaders have emerged in Telesystem Mesko and VIGO Photonics. VIGO, for example, is considered a leader in the field of uncooled IR photodetectors. Founded 30 years ago, the company has its roots at the WAT and builds on research findings from the times of economic embargo in the Cold War. Today, the company employs 200 people and manufactures sensors that are used in 60 countries—and even on Mars. Other photonics companies from the PPTF group specialize in gas sensor technology, which also makes use of infrared technology.
Another industry focus, according to Nowakowski, is optical fibers—a field in which Poland broke its own ground 40 years ago, also because of the embargoes. “As early as the 1970s, the first fiber optic lines for communication were created in our country,” he reports. It has been possible, he says, to anchor the know-how that has grown in state-of-the-art companies such as Perspectiva, FIBRAIN or the start-up FIBER TEAM Photonic Solutions. The latter is developing fiber-optic sensors that are in request in medicine, materials analysis, and also in explosive areas of industrial plants. Another highly regarded photonics start-up, SDS OPTIC, is developing fiber optic systems for the early detection of cancer. And, of course, there are various system integrators, which integrate fiber laser technology into modern machinery. Among them Solaris, EAGLE, or the femtosecond laser specialist Fluence, founded in 2016, whose products are used in industry, medicine, biophotonics, and research laboratories. In addition, there is TopGaN-Lasers, an emerging manufacturer of gallium nitride (GaN)-based diode lasers.
According to Nowakowski, the squad of more experienced, highly export-oriented companies is passing on its knowledge in the cluster to the new generation of founders. “We have some very exciting start-ups,” he reports. For example, XTPL, which aims to revolutionize chip, display or photovoltaic manufacturing with its 3D nanoprinting process. Their printer applies metallic nano inks in ultra-fine structures to glass, silicone, plastics, and circuit boards. The resolutions are in the single-digit micrometer range. International investors have long been on board to quickly market the start-up's printers and inks on a global scale. Such rapid internationalization is typical of the scene. For example, Noctiluca, which was only founded in 2018, already has teams in South Korea, the U.S. and research partners in Germany and Japan to develop their novel materials for OLED displays and to manufacture them in-house. QNA Technology, a team dedicated to developing colloidal semiconducting quantum dots based on inorganic crystalline nanomaterials since 2016, has also gone global from day one. And with Orca Computing, there is also a widely networked team in the field of quantum computing. “In Poland, 250 companies now identify themselves as part of the photonics industry, be it system developers or suppliers of materials, optical components and software,” the PPTF director reports. The industry, which is dominated by small and medium-sized companies, is strongly export-oriented, often highly specialized and sees itself as part of global value chains, he said. “There are no local companies in the photonics industry. The industry is far too closely networked across the globe for that,” he explains.