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“A Laser Specialist Through and Through”

Fledgling company SI Stuttgart Instruments GmbH has quickly made a real name for itself in the photonics community. Its core product is a modular ultrashort pulse laser platform with a tuning range of 1.35 to 4.5 micrometers. With it, the team was named the overall winner of the Innovation Award at LASER World of PHOTONICS 2022. In this interview, Managing Director Dr. Tobias Steinle, who co-founded the spin-off from the University of Stuttgart in 2017, discusses the target markets of the award-winning laser series, the role of lasers in important future fields, and what it’s like to launch a start-up in the increasingly global photonics industry.

Belated congratulations on winning the Innovation Award 2022. What do you think are the main strengths of your Alpha series?

Dr. Tobias Steinle: Thank you! In our opinion, the main strengths are the flexibility of the platform, the stability of the laser and the reproducibility of the activated wavelengths. Thanks to its modular design, we can adjust the series to suit various different applications with minimal effort and adapt not only the spectral range, the pulse duration and the repetition rates but also the output power to suit the needs of the respective users. Our platform can provide them with exactly the right light, whether they’re conducting materials research or using our tunable lasers for microscopy or spectroscopy-related applications.

How exactly is it modular?

Steinle: We provide extension modules which enable our customers to extend the already widely tunable spectrum (from 1.35 to 4.5 micrometers (µm)) into the visible infrared range as from 0.7 µm, conduct research in the near-infrared range from 1,07 to 1.4 µm and even use mid-infrared wavelengths of between 4.5 and 20 µm. At all extension development stages, we focused on extremely precise wavelength tuning while ensuring that the pulse shape remained consistent. What’s more, once wavelengths have been selected, they can be used again with the same precision with just a simple mouse click. As a result, spectral and output power conditions can be repeated with unprecedented precision. That makes a considerable contribution to improving the efficiency of series analyses and microscopies with different spectra.

For which markets and applications are these extension modules of particular interest?

Steinle: Our products are currently mostly used in academic research at universities. This mainly includes materials studies in which the mid-infrared range in particular is required. Near-field microscopes are often used here which not only provide information in the mid-IR spectrum but also enable spatial measurements in the nanometer range. The second major application is biological and biomedical imaging, which primarily uses our near-infrared lasers. In the meantime, we are looking beyond university applications and working on gaining a foothold in industry with our lasers, for which we need to bring the costs downs. We’re working on that and are already in preliminary talks with industrial users. They are also interested in material analyses and biomedical imaging. The high-precision and time-efficient tunability is basically of interest wherever samples are analyzed using different wavelengths or wherever the flexibility of the laser enables the user to precisely control the extent to which the light penetrates the tissue or materials.

Many of your publications are about plasmonics, and have covered topics such as nanoantennas, hydrogenography on magnesium nanoparticles, and active plasmonic metasurfaces. Were you already focused on these applications when you set the company up in 2017?

Steinle: To be honest, I need to clarify something: I’m not an expert in plasmonics. The fact of the matter is that a research focus of my doctoral thesis supervisor and company co-founder Prof. Harald Giessen is on ultrafast nanooptics. He is the Director of the 4th Physics Institute of the University of Stuttgart from which our spin-off was born. Not only have we benefited from his vast knowledge of laser physics and his network, but were also able to physically test and optimize our lasers early on as part of his plasmonics research. That was extremely valuable for us as a start-up because we were able to learn in actual projects which features users really need, and which they don’t. Ultimately, the publications demonstrate the synergies between the plasmonics research and our laser development. The projects have benefited both sides.

My question also relates to interdisciplinarity. How deep does an innovative laser manufacturer need to delve these days into the research applications that will be executed with its lasers?

Steinle: Our customer base includes absolute experts with a wealth of expertise. We cannot, of course, understand every last detail. However, we do have to develop a pretty advanced understanding of their projects and be able to to follow what exactly they are using our lasers for and which wavelength ranges and parameters are key for them. We’re ultimately more concerned with how our customers carry out their measurements and analyses than what they are measuring. We want to understand our users’ everyday lives, so that we can use that to determine the specifications for our lasers.

How do you manage to do all that with the limited resources of a start-up, especially since you have to create a customer base, internal structures and a financial basis at the same time?

Steinle: Sales is actually one of our most time-consuming and resource-intensive areas. But it’s worth the effort. We were able to design our laser platform to specifically meet the needs of users because we really listened to them right from the start. A prime example is the precise reactivation of wavelengths with just a simple mouse click. We kept on hearing this request and then started working on developing this function so that we could eventually implement it. Ultimately, it all comes down to teamwork. Several tasks are assigned to each of us and we assume responsibility for them. Knowledge management is also very important due to the technological depth required. Because we’re a small team, we need to make clever use of our know-how and create certain redundancies to make up for there being so few of us. We also brought sales and marketing experts on board at an early stage, called in external expertise, and applied for public funding where possible. After all, you need more than just laser physics to build a successful company.

In your opinion, is the increasingly global photonics industry a good sector for setting up new companies?

Steinle: Like many other industries, photonics is currently facing supply chain issues and having to deal with the ongoing chip shortage. We’re also feeling the effects, and I can imagine that other founders of companies are also struggling with these challenges right now. Nevertheless, photonics is a high-tech industry that boasts huge diversity and a lot of different niche markets. These are great conditions for start-ups with good ideas and the necessary technical skills. Even fledgling companies with relatively small teams can penetrate niche markets and quickly offer customers real added value if they focus properly. In general, I would encourage anyone thinking about setting up a company to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. You can achieve a lot in this industry if you have a good idea, are honest with your customers and provide them with good service that also extends beyond the usual warranty periods.

Your lasers are used in many exciting fields of research with the potential to drive social progress. Are there any areas that are particularly close to your heart?

Steinle: I’m a laser specialist through and through, and I’m always happy when lasers manage to push the boundaries of what is possible. Lasers are enablers in many areas these days, whether in material research for photovoltaics and energy storage devices, in e-mobility and hydrogen mobility, or in biological and medical research and practice. In pathology, lasers enable huge volumes of samples to be examined quickly and efficiently under the microscope, and have become indispensable for imaging and for analysis equipment. And there are many more fields of application that are highly relevant for solving future issues. The types of precision lasers that we build are a small yet important piece of the puzzle for advancing research and development bit by bit. Our company was launched in 2017 in order to help make laser technology increasingly precise and easier to use. Tunable lasers actually already existed in the 1990s, but back then, setting the desired wavelength often took several minutes—now all it takes is a mouse click.

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