Giving photonics a head start

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Entrepreneurs will pitch their photonics businesses to industry experts during the seventh annual Startup Challenge, to be held at Photonics West 2017 in San Francisco. Jessica Rowbury speaks to Dirk Fabian, SPIE’s community lead, about the evolution of the competition and the importance of supporting start-ups

How has the Startup Challenge evolved since it started in 2011?

For the first two years of the Startup Challenge, we were very much in pilot / demonstration mode. I was focused on identifying and training entrepreneurship-oriented graduate students and post docs; we drew our pitch presenters mostly from this group. I received a small sponsorship from Newport, and then Jenoptik, so I could offer the winners a paid trip to receive additional entrepreneurship training from a programme (the engineering entrepreneurship academy) run by Andrew Hargadon at the University of California, Davis. 

There was just one division with a marathon 20 presenters and there were no other rounds and no cash prizes aside from the additional training opportunity. The first pitches were a bit rough; most people gave some version of their research talk with a few financial guesses behind them. Pitching is not natural to the research scientists and engineers that typically have large amounts of time to dive deeply into the nooks and crannies of whatever interests them. A three-minute pitch that really distils the impact and value of the potential product takes a lot of practice to refine.

The next year, we moved all the biophotonics pitches into their own division but still had marathon pitching and judging sessions. The results of our first experiments were: 1) to keep doing this because there was interest and support from both presenters and the business development / investment community; 2) build more pre-event training in to the programme in order to improve the quality of the pitches; and 3) offer a real prize package to attract more prepared entrepreneurs, but not lose sight of our mission to help the new or potential entrepreneur. 

Jenoptik and Jay Kumler in particular stepped up their sponsorship in 2013, allowing us to offer prizes, and their consistent support has contributed significantly to the growth of this event. We’ve had about 200 teams pass through the process by now, and the impact it has made has been powerful. I invite the finalist teams back every year to mentor the new cohort and give an update on their progress during the finals event. There are some amazing, hard-working entrepreneurs in our community, and I love highlighting their efforts to solve practical problems.

Now in 2016, we’ve got great participation from the Photonics West business development community, and I see more people from the Silicon Valley investment community in the audience every year.

What are the major challenges facing photonics technology start-ups?

I hate to be trite, but hardware is hard. Investors get spoiled on the easy scalability and demonstrable traction of software start-ups. It’s easy for them to ignore the profoundly world-shifting changes possible with photonics-enabled products; it’s riskier and photonics is a complex science that only a limited set of investors have any knowledge in. But that’s also part of the opportunity – the competition space is much more limited. 

The time horizons for success can also be longer: investing in foundry time for a new chip, or going through the regulatory process for a medical diagnostic tool takes longer than many investors are comfortable with. 

How are competitions such as the Startup Challenge helping start-ups?

The primary benefits of this programme are free visibility and validation by the scientific community. It lends credibility and awareness about a young company’s efforts.

For a company that has little money to spend, just the cost of travelling to Photonics West can leverage a significant amount of time and effort. In general, competitions are a great way to make connections and refine ideas. The real test, when money is on the line, often comes behind closed doors. By the time that happens, you want to have tested and tried your business plan with a wide variety of other people so you aren’t caught off guard. 

Are there any previous winners/finalists that stand out to you?

Arun Chabbra (8tree, 2013) is my archetype for a wonderful winner. You could not ask for a more personable, thoughtful founder who is making great strides forward. He spends time every year contributing his time to the programme as a judge and mentor to our great benefit. I’m excited to see that his company is up for a Prism award this year.

There are lots of videos on past finalists here.

Apart from competitions, what other actions can the photonics industry take to support young companies?

If you are in an established business, get your people out there to talk to new entrepreneurs. Seek them out in places like the Startup Challenge or your local university’s business incubator. There is a tremendous talent pool coming out of the university that is hungry for new challenges – they may not be your customer, but it’s good to connect with them before they become your competitor. I am excited to see a number of photonics companies develop investment arms to tap in to this talent; Trumpf (a long time sponsor) being the latest. It will be interesting to see the impact of this effort on their business.

The US’ National Science Foundation, through its SBIR/STTR programmes, and Photonics21 in Europe also provide opportunities and I want to acknowledge their contribution to supporting the development of new enterprises.

How important do you think innovation is for the photonics industry?

In 2008, just as the economic meltdown was occurring, SPIE held a conference on innovation, specifically open innovation. The timing was awful, but the idea sound. Open innovation says that the boundaries of a business must be permeable to ideas. Business opportunities can flow in from the outside (invest and acquisitions) or spin out from the inside. Few companies can afford the permanent research and development teams that they dream of to be competitive on all possible fronts, but they can take part in this open innovation ecosystem by supporting young companies. By seeking partnerships and connections with entrepreneurs, companies can gain agility and make rapid movements into new markets. Innovation doesn’t always need to be born inside your own building. 

What kinds of technologies do you expect/hope to see at the 2017 event?

The Startup Challenge is strongest in biophotonics and point of care technologies. The US’ FDA process requires roughly four million in investment to run clinical trials and get a shot at approval, so companies hoping to survive the long regulatory process need to be well-staffed and funded. It also helps to have the world’s largest biophotonics research conference and trade show (BiOS) on the doorstep. Every year, I’m disappointed that I can’t give prize support to the top presenters in this division, because there are some truly remarkable entrepreneurs and technologies in it.

AR/VR has come on strong in the last few years. This is a challenging field because of the big players – for example Facebook, Google, Oculus, and MagicLeap – who are operating in this field and trying to move as quickly and secretly as possible. It seems to have a lot of potential for a solid innovative company to make a quick advance and exit, IF you can make the right connections.

Our semi-final competitions will be open to the public this year. Divisions in 2016 were: 1) biophotonics and point of care; 2) imaging, displays, and semiconductors; and 3) sensors, wearables, and IoT. I expect to see submissions in all of these areas again.

Past finalists: where are they now?

Arun Chhabra and Erik Klaas from 8tree (Germany) took first place in the 2013 Startup Challenge for their 3D surface inspection system, FastCheck, designed for measuring surface flushness of fasteners (rivets) in the aerospace industry.

Since winning the competition, 8tree has received certification from Airbus for its FastCheck system, along with its DentCheck analyser that measures surface deformation problems. The company is in the process of certifying their products with other aircraft OEMs.

As well Airbus and Boeing, 8tree also has customers such as TAP-Maintenance and Engineering, a global provider of heavy-check maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) services, which recently reported a 90 per cent reduction in its dent-mapping and reporting times as a result of adopting a DentCheck system.

8tree has also been announced as a 2017 SPIE Prism Award finalist. Winners are to be announced during Photonics West, so keep an eye out for them at the show!

Dr Johnathon Gunn from Briteseed won in 2015 with Safesnips, a technology that integrates NIR spectroscopy into surgical cutting tools to prevent inadvertent cuts during operations.

Since winning the competition, Briteseed has expanded its team and moved into animal studies. According to Gunn, they have had support from more than 40 surgeons and have worked with large surgical societies – including the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons and AAGL – to help move the technology into the hands of surgeons.

The company also received a National Science Foundation SPIR award worth $150,000 and made it to the top two in the Advanced Medical Society Association’s MedTech Innovator 2015 Competition.

Dr Balthasar Fisher from Austrian company Xarion Laser Acoustics was awarded second place in 2015 for a membrane-free optical microphone that relies on the modulation of a laser beam instead of mechanical or moving parts.

In the last couple of years, the company has won both the 2016 Code_n challenge, one of Europe’s major start-up competitions, and the 2015 Houska Prize, Austria’s largest private award for applied sciences research.

In September this year, Fischer received the international Berthold Leibinger Innovationspreis, an award that recognises scientists and developers who help advance laser technology.

Xarion’s optical microphone has been used by various scientific bodies, such as in an experiment for Cern to study proton impact acoustic shock waves.

Bodle Technologies’ solid state reflective display (SRD) technology will enable ultra-high resolution colour displays that are easily viewable even in bright sunlight, 2016 finalist Peiman Hosseini said in his pitch.

In September, the Oxford, UK-based company achieved reflective specifications for the three primary colours required for manufacture of the core optoelectronic films in its SRD technology; a key milestone for bringing it to market.

Bodle was also selected as a finalist in the European Code_n start-up competition earlier this year.

Finalist in 2016, Kyle Miller of Bold Diagnostics pitched a wearable patch that provides more comprehensive blood pressure readings by recording trends over a seven day period.

In July, the Northwestern University spin-off finished fourth in the NASA-sponsored Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest graduate-level student start-up challenge, taking home $125,000.

Also this year, the company came first in the medical category of the Create the Future Design Contest, an American competition that attracts more than 12,000 applications each year, and won the American Heart Association’s Heart Innovation Challenge, receiving $20,000.

Carlos Serpa of Portuguese company LaserLeap was awarded first place in 2012 for pitching a non-invasive medical device for topical delivery of drugs using lasers.

Since 2012, the technology has turned from an idea to a product – the Piezoporation System – now on the market. The product has gone through clinical tests and is being sold in Europe. The company is currently working to get FDA approval in order to bring its products to the United States.

·         There will be more coverage on past Startup finalists in the next issue of Electro Optics and online; follow @electrooptics for updates.