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Eric Mottay talks about founding Amplitude Laser Group at a time when the industrial femtosecond laser market was 'virtually non-existent'  

 
 
How did Amplitude Laser start?

I and six other people founded Amplitude in 2001. We had been working in the same company called BMI in France, and were the first team in the 90s to put into the market high-power femtosecond lasers, a novel technology back then. During the decade, our original company was acquired by Thomson-CSF, a much larger company. In 2000, we decided to go our own way to start a project dedicated solely to ultrafast lasers and that was how Amplitude was created. The femtosecond laser market was already an interesting one back then, but industrial markets were virtually non-existent at the time. In retrospect, it gave us the time to develop and mature the technology.

It is interesting how you persevered, despite there being no market for the product at the time

Oh, well, we are photonics engineers – and we are stubborn in this funny way!

How were responsibilities split between the founders?

I and my colleague Gilles Riboulet were tasked to lead the project. He was in charge of the scientific part of the business. I moved to Bordeaux to develop industrial ytterbium ultrafast lasers, in start-up mode. The two branches of the business developed in parallel until a few years ago, when there was a convergence between the science and industrial activities.

You were originally based in Paris. Why did you opt to develop the other branch of the business in Bordeaux?

The original technology we used for industrial lasers was developed at the University of Bordeaux. You cannot make a successful technology transfer if you are not on-site. I spent a year in the basement of the university developing the first product! Also, the Bordeaux region has a very favourable environment for the laser industry and photonics research.

What were some challenges or highlights in growing the company?

We’ve had a couple of big challenges. One occurred during the start of Amplitude. Deep tech was not fashionable back then. So, starting a hardware tech company that builds lasers at the height of the telecom bubble, on a topic that not everybody believed in, raised some credibility issues that we had to overcome. 

Another important thing is the time constant – the time it takes for the technology to mature, and how you survive while the technology matures. This can be challenging if you have pressure from investors. Fortunately we were self-funded back then, and we were able to grow the company by finding early users at the frontier between the industrial domain and scientific research. That kept us going and exposed us to the market. 

A big challenge also emerged a couple of years later when the market opened. We had to evolve from a startup composed of engineers and PhDs into an industrial manufacturing company. This led to us being among the first companies in this field to invest significantly in engineering, industrialisation and reliability of this technology, which gave us a competitive advantage that still exists today.

What are the future plans of the company – and the opportunities for ultrafast technology?

From a strategy point of view, one thing that does not worry me too much is the market. Even if it is already embedded in many industrial processes, the technology is still in a fairly early stage and opportunities abound, especially with the increase of average and peak power from our lasers. In that sense, there is still a nice path ahead for us as an ultrafast laser company. Amplitude occupies a sweet spot in the competitive landscape. 

Our strict focus on ultrafast lasers gives us flexibility in a changing environment that larger companies can struggle to match. At the same time, we have the critical mass and right number of people, which gives us the means to address topics like reliability and engineering that start-ups need to acquire. In this regard, Amplitude has an excellent position in the global competition that I would like to develop.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?

I was not born an entrepreneur – I became one because of my passion for the technology. The field of photonics is full of passionate, open-minded and interesting people. Photonics is still a young industry, a fresh and dynamic sector where most people are not only working for the money, but also for the fun and to fulfil a dream! EO