Since its foundation in 2005, more than 3,800 members have joined the European technology platform Photonics21. The Public Private Partnership (Partnership) acts as the interface between research, industry and politics. In order to accelerate the transfer of knowledge, Photonics21 is currently operating ten pilot lines and service hubs in which companies can open up fields of photonic innovation with specialist advice. In an interview, Photonics21 president Dr. Lutz Aschke speaks about the role of photonics in addressing the key socio-economic challenges of our time, the far-from-exhausted economic potential of photonics, and fields of innovation such as integrated photonics and quantum technologies.
Lutz Aschke: We are a European public private partnership (Partnership) with more than 3,800 members in which anyone who feels connected to the photonics community can take part for free. We often encounter the misconception that we are an association or cluster. This is not the case. In fact, the EU Commission launched Photonics21 in 2005 to start an exchange with our industry. Since then, we have been developing strategic research and innovation agendas that the Commission incorporates into calls for proposals of the research framework program. We are organized according to Belgian association law and are one of 49 such PPPs in which the EU Commission exchanges ideas with a wide variety of industries. Of course, there is also networking between the members, who mainly come from the fields of industry, research and politics. All of this is based on grassroots democratic thought. Participation is free, meaning anyone can take part and contribute content and ideas.
Aschke: There are six working groups organized by user markets and an additional group—“Core Photonics”—in which anyone who registers with Photonics21 is automatically a member. This structure has grown this way over the years. Each working group organizes workshops in which all members can contribute ideas and content. These are collected unfiltered, then discussed in the community and finally prioritized. In terms of efficient processes, there is a selected committee structure that prepares the workshops and also accompanies the transfer to research agendas and work programs. In the interests of lively discussions, we make sure that the group sizes in the workshops are manageable. This has worked very well thus far. For example, more than 1,000 members actively contributed to the research agenda we recently presented. The photonics community has understood that in our Partnership they are invited to help shape research and funding policy decision-making processes. Politicians need input from practice in order to develop a feel for forward-looking technology trends and for the strengths of the industry, which must continue to be reinforced.
Aschke: Six working groups address important photonics user markets: Aside from digital infrastructure, manufacturing and health, these include the areas of climate, mobility & infrastructure, as well as safety, security, space & defense and agriculture & food. The focus is on concrete applications in order to raise awareness of the comprehensive solution competence of photonics and to raise their potential to solve the socio-economic challenges of our time through application-related innovations. In the seventh group, we think beyond concrete applications. This deals with basic research and enabler processes that we must not lose, and with investments in future markets such as quantum technologies and integrated photonics. Where the first six groups deal more with a market pull, the Core Photonics group addresses any topic where technology still needs a push. What our working groups develop and prioritize then finds its way into the EU research framework programs. This is because we have established a constant exchange between politics, industry and research in our Partnership and have thus developed a mutual understanding of our respective requirements and needs. This also means that the specific funding volume for photonics is “only” EUR 480 million—but we are actually represented with photonic solutions in many other areas of research funding. Some examples are the Chips Act and quantum computing, in both of which photonics plays an important role. The variety of photonic solutions is only hinted at in the broad spectrum of user markets addressed by our working groups. In addition to lasers, lenses, chips and the display, a smartphone alone contains numerous production steps that are only possible with photonics. Every research center, every hospital and doctor’s practice, every car and plane, every agricultural machine and process chain in which the food industry now uses countless solutions based on photonics—and the variety of applications is constantly increasing. Mass-produced components and extremely high-end solutions exist side by side, which in turn testifies to the diversity of business models.
Aschke: The European photonics industry is characterized by many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Many of them are active in deep and high-tech fields. Production technology is often expensive in these areas, which makes access difficult, especially since it is often not fully utilized at the beginning. This is where the pilot lines come into play. These were created by photonics partners in the course of two EU research framework programs, “Horizon Europe” and “Horizon 2020”, in order to give SMEs in particular access to new photonic technologies. They are also open for end users who have no prior experience with photonics. The service ranges from initial prototyping to small series production. Here, we follow a “test before invest” strategy in order to reduce the barrier to entry for new users. The whole thing is accompanied by a Europe-wide training program on the technology platforms and free, tailor-made advice for companies on the implementation of their photonics innovation. To this end, the PhotonHub Europe was launched. Relevant actors come together around the pilot lines; this is how the bedrock for new supply chains is created. As far as possible, the pilot lines are organized like virtual factories and integrate existing decentralized infrastructure at universities, research institutes and specialized companies. It’s a matter of pragmatism, efficiency and European togetherness: When we pool our existing strengths, we have a lot to offer in global competition.
Aschke: Not yet. Investments from global competitors are in a completely different league. However, we are registering a growing awareness in politics of the importance of these future markets. It’s a matter of everyone involved questioning whether our existing modular system of funding instruments is still suitable for such future fields. Do we have to adapt the funding policy framework in order to be able to keep up in international subsidy competitions? How can we use funds more intelligently and efficiently? And how will we manage to continue to build upon existing strengths despite the need for investment in future technologies? The exchange in our Partnership is very helpful when it comes to clarifying these questions. There is also another reason why I am confident: We have many family-run, medium-sized companies in Europe that have the courage, strength and stamina to make long-term investments. One example is the development of extreme UV exposure of microchips, which we brooded over when I was a student. It took decades to bring it to market readiness—and it’s no coincidence that it was achieved by a European company.
Aschke: We recently published a survey in which more than 80 percent of the participating companies reported massive, business-critical problems. Essentially, this is about delivery delays in the area of microelectronic and optical components, raw materials and also simple semiconductors. Even for grown crystals, we have become dependent on international suppliers, even though that used to be a European strength. More than one in two companies admits a high dependency on deliveries from China, which is often the only option as there are no longer any local suppliers. Here, politics, business and science need to work together to develop European strategies—and implement them as quickly as possible. We need to bring back relevant supply chains and cooperate more closely with international partners who share our values. Otherwise, we will remain dependent, which can lead to significant losses in productivity. Because if important deliveries are missing, then you can say goodbye to lean production and just-in-time processes. The user markets also need to understand this. We need to act together.
Aschke: In view of the rapidly growing variety of photonic solutions for more and more different markets, I currently see no limits; and neither do our members. Photonics is still in its infancy in many applications. Even in data centers, where thousands of lasers are at work, a large number of copper cables still have to be replaced by optical data cables. In hospitals, laboratories, factories and fields, the potential of photonics is far from exhausted. It is driving the most important transformation processes of our time. None of our work groups complain about a lack of ideas for photonic innovations. Staying power is important when it comes to young technologies in particular. It often takes a generation before these are widely used. That’s because this requires experts in construction who have learned to deal with it and to use the advantages of new photonic processes. In the past, we sometimes didn't have the staying power to survive the “Valley of Death”. As a result, global competitors are celebrating market success with technologies that we developed to maturity in Europe with a lot of government funding. Politicians now understand that they need to persevere in order to reap what they sow in technology funding.
Aschke: One of the central approaches of our Partnership is to show the user industries the potential of photonic solutions. We identify early adopters, drive innovations together with them and communicate the use-cases to politicians. Productive innovation networks, in which ideas can mature and ultimately develop into successful solutions, only form when their benefits are understood by users, technology partners and sponsors. This is a partnership process. That’s why I prefer to refer to it as a partnership rather than a platform when I talk about Photonics21.