A highly dynamic photonics industry is forming in Lithuania. Dr. Gediminas Račiukaitis, President of the Lithuanian Laser Association and Head of the Laser Technologies Department at the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC) has accompanied the rise of the strongly exports-oriented industry from the very beginning. Among its pioneers is Kestutis Jasiūnas, CEO of EKSPLA, a laser manufacturer founded in 1992. Its ultrafast lasers are used in top research facilities around the globe. In this interview, Jasiūnas and Račiukaitis talk about the scientific roots of their industry, the increasing diversity of solution providers across the entire process chain—and about joint trade fair booths as a lever to promote Lithuania as an innovative photonics hub.
Dr. Gediminas Račiukaitis: We represent Lithuania's laser and optics community, which currently includes 54 mainly small and medium-sized companies with around 1,300 employees. Half of them are direct members, the other half cooperate with us only selectively. So far, we have operated as an interest group at the national level, but we are expanding our focus to include European politics and international issues. Another focus of our association's work is the coordination between industry and research, as well as the promotion of photonic solutions to potential industrial users at home and abroad. The latter is becoming increasingly successful. On average, the export rate of our companies is over 80 percent. To make Lithuania's photonics industry even better known and to make smaller suppliers heard, we organize joint visits abroad and joint booths at international trade fairs such as the LASER World of PHOTONICS. Over the past 15 years, we made great technological progress, joined industrial value chains and are on a global expansion course. To achieve this, we must hold our own against strong competitors. To gain strategic clarity, we are currently drafting a Roadmap for the next decade.
Kestutis Jasiūnas: Our company was founded in 1992 by eight engineers practically right after Lithuania's breakaway from Russian occupation. We had laser know-how and sold the first laser to Japan already in the year after the foundation. By the end of the nineties, we sold 80 percent of our lasers there. With this reference, we were gradually able to make ourselves heard in Europe and in the U.S.. Today, our company has 140 employees and is targeting sales of 20 million euros—a 25 % increase over the previous year. Our latest developments and how the market accepts these developments enables us to think so: a lot of attention from the market was attracted by our industrial femtosecond laser that features 24/7 maintenance-free operation as well as a new line of scientific tunable wavelength lasers offering un-matched tuning range from the one box. We also offer OPCPA (Optical Parametric Chirped Pulse Amplification) lasers, the technology for which our friend Prof. Gérard Mourou received his Nobel Prize. The precursors of these lasers were developed already in 1992 at the Laser Research Center of Vilnius University.
Račiukaitis: One of our strengths is in the area of optical components. Several suppliers have established their operations here, using state-of-the-art machining, polishing, and coating. And we have a particular strength in ultrafast laser technology. Here, we are now operating absolutely on a par with French, German and US suppliers. At the last LASER, we joked with colleagues from France. “What we have in mind as ideas, you Lithuanians have had already implemented,” one of them joked. Even if everyone laughed, it was a nice compliment that shows us we are on the right track.
Jasiūnas: If you ask me about our greatest strength, the answer is collaboration. And that is between science and industry as well as between companies, even if they are in direct competition with each other. We have realized that we do much better in the global market when we support each other. We are in technological competition, but we help each other with contacts, join forces in joint development projects and stand shoulder to shoulder at joint trade show booths. Our innovative strength certainly also stems from the fact that distances are short, and we maintain a constant exchange of information between research institutes and companies. Almost a closed loop—they hear from us what is in demand in the market. We learn the latest scientific findings and receive their support in transferring them into our products.
Račiukaitis: I agree with Kestutis. Almost all companies are spin-offs from research institutes. We know each other and have an almost family-like relationship. The scientific roots often go back deep into the Soviet era. As early as the 1960s, Lithuanian students experimented with lasers in Moscow and brought the know-how along with the necessary components here. In the 1970s, there were two strong poles in Vilnius: The Institute of Physics and the Vilnius University Laser Research Center, 20 km away. At that time, they provided a constant technological competition and pushed each other. The two then largest laser manufacturers started as spin-offs of these institutes: Light Conversion along with EKSMA, the 1983 founded forerunner of today's EKSMA Optics and EKSPLA. The most effective way to generate energy is a dipole. This also applies to the specific innovative power in our industry.
Račiukaitis: Our institute is currently involved in four funding projects of EU Horizon program. Two of them deal with the establishment of digital innovation hubs as competence centers for companies that want to find out more about the use of laser technologies or plan for their use. The others are concerning laser-based accelerators for particles. In these projects, we work closely with European partners. We are also a founding member of the European Consortium for Research Infrastructures for Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI ERIC), which operates two laser centers in the Czech Republic and Hungary. In Hungary, state-of-the-art high-energy ultrashort-pulse laser systems are in use, which, by the way, we are developing together with EKSPLA and Light Conversion. Here, what we’ve just said becomes concrete: even long-standing competitors are collaborating.
Jasiūnas: If anything, it’s only in trace elements. Of course, the basic physics are the same. But so much has changed technologically that the systems are no longer comparable. Parameters, performance, controls have very little to do with the solutions in our early days. Long after our founding, there was the dictum that development was done with the achievement of picosecond pulses. Today, we are moving into the attosecond range for research purposes. Meanwhile, femto- and picosecond technology has become highly reliable. In parallel, we see a demand in materials processing with longer pulse durations between 500 pico- and 10 nanoseconds.
Jasiūnas: One interesting field of research and application in which we are increasingly investing is photoacoustic solutions for medical diagnostics. For example, in breast cancer screening. Patients find existing mammograms unpleasant, their diagnostics are not particularly reliable, and radiation exposure is high. We are involved in a funded project that is advancing a painless and radiation-free photoacoustic method based on a tunable nanosecond laser. The results so far are very encouraging, especially about the reliability of the findings.
Račiukaitis: Here you hit on one of our weak points. Unlike South Korea, Japan or many EU states, Lithuania does not have the large industrial anchor investors around whose factories entire supplier ecosystems develop. So far, no automobiles or semiconductor chips are manufactured here. We are looking for domestic industrial customers for whom photonic solutions can create added value.
Jasiūnas: Imports are primarily crystals and technical glass. For the supplied components for our lasers, we rely on the domestic supply chain. As Gediminas already mentioned, we have top-suppliers of optical components in the country. The fact that their products can hold their own in international competition is evident from the fact that our laser systems equipped with them are in demand at top research institutes around the globe. Our customers include CERN, NASA, ELI, various Max Planck Institutes, Cambridge University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Japan University of Science. Our domestic Lithuanian supply chain stands for quality at the highest international level.