‘I resigned and swore to myself that I’d be my own boss’
Carlos Lee, EPIC’s director general, talks to Philippe Bolle, CEO of Skylane Optics, provider of transceivers for optical communication
What led to you setting up Skylane Optics?
In 1988 I graduated from Union Gramme University, Belgium, with a degree in industrial engineering. After some postgraduate research on laser missile guidance systems for military applications, in 1990 I started working as a development engineer for a small family company working in the diamond and textile industries.
At that time, the company was using out-of-date technology and in a bad financial shape, and I was promised some shares if I could help turn the company around. After two years working hard to develop a solid-state semiconductor laser printer for textiles, the company began making a profit, but the owner refused to sell me a part of the company. The next day, I resigned and swore to myself that from then on, I’d be my own boss.
So, in 1992, at the age of 26, I approached Optilas, a French-owned distributor of photonics products, and offered to open an office in Belgium with me as co-founder and with a 10 per cent share in the business.
By 1998, the company had grown to a workforce of 22 and was doing well, but unfortunately, due to the death of the group’s CEO, the owners sold out to a US distributor.
Not wanting to be a cog in a corporate machine, in 1998, I cashed in my shares and began a fruitful partnership with Laser2000 as a majority shareholder. At that time, there was a lot of work in telecoms. I went to the US and got a contract to represent Finisar in Europe, and opened offices in Milan and Stockholm working as a distributor of optical components and transceivers, supplying most of the big tier one companies like Ericsson and Nokia.
In the early 2000s, as a result of the telecom crash, the telecom market suddenly collapsed, and all the big players in Europe shut down their factories and moved everything to contract manufacturing in Asia.
The only way for me to stay alive was to go after the optic fibre for the home market, and as Scandinavia was the only place pushing home-access fibre, I opened an office in Stockholm to supply fibre and transceivers to the Nordic market.
In 2006 I was approached by Tele2, a Swedish company fed up with paying a high price for optical transceivers, as they were required to buy a specific optical transceiver for each of the six platforms they worked with.
They asked me if I could supply third-party hybrid optical transceivers, and after investigating the feasibility and market potential for this type of device, in 2008 I set up Skylane Optics to make my own optical transceivers.
At that time, because there was no telecom optics manufacturing in Europe, the only solution was to contract manufacture in China. But, the quality was bad and I had to spend a lot of time teaching them how to improve and optimise the technology. The problem, which has been with me all my life, was that the knowledge and technical know-how I gave them was being shared with my competitors, and in effect, I was teaching the Chinese how to improve their market.
How has Skylane Optics developed?
Since 2008 Skylane Optics has been a third-party manufacturer dedicated to telecom operators, providing optical and copper transceivers, active optical and direct attach cables, Mux/Demux and coding boxes. We’ve grown to a workforce of around 50, and now have offices in Belgium, Brazil, Sweden and USA and cover the European, South American and US markets.
In 2010, I set up my own ESD-protected cleanroom in Belgium, for R&D, and also to ensure that everything we sell was top quality and fully compliant with MSA, ITU-T and IEEE standards.
In 2011, I set up Skylane Optics in Brazil, because at that time, to sell in Brazil you had to produce in Brazil. But three years later, due to increasing labour costs, we closed down production but kept the cleanroom and warehouse. We then started to focus on South and Central America, and opened sales offices in Mexico and Colombia. This was followed two years ago with the opening of an office in Miami, when we finally achieved our main goal of selling in the United States.
What have been the main challenges?
Lack of talent. One of the main challenges for photonics companies in Belgium, and in fact, all Europe, is the difficulty in recruiting photonics engineers.
Belgium only produces around 20 graduates in photonics engineering per year. To overcome this problem, I’ve had to pay ex-colleagues living in places like India, Malaysia and the Philippines to move to Belgium to help on the R&D and develop the company.
Weakness of Europe: even though Europe has been moving fast over the last five years in terms of technology and knowledge, a major problem is that having 28 countries with 28 decision-makers has made it difficult to bring this knowledge and expertise together to produce commercial products.
As a result, unlike China, which invests huge amounts of money in photonics, Europe has been slow to invest. If you go to a bank in Belgium and ask for €4m to launch a company, you’ll be lucky to get €400,000, whereas asking for $10m in the US is seen as pocket money.
How do you see the future for Skylane Optics?
I’ve recently agreed more funding from an investment group which will allow us to go faster and to reinvest in Europe. Three years ago we decided to focus more on application software and to build a software ecosystem around the optical transceiver, to prevent aging of the transceiver and to allow the operator to know what they have in their network.
We’re members of TIP (The Telecom Infra Project), which aims to evolve telecom equipment and software into more flexible and interoperable forms, and also OCP, the Open Compute Project, that shares designs of data centre products and best practices. In the near future, all telecom operators will move to an open platform and we’re now researching TIP/OCP technology to find out how we can bring added value, and develop a European solution for next-generation networks.
If you could start again what would you do differently?
Firstly, I wouldn’t share my knowledge and ideas unless I was sure where they were going.
Apart from that, it’s a difficult question for someone who’s been in the business for 30 years, because it’s a completely different world now. I started communicating using telex, then fax and then computers. Also, when I started in 2008, I was completely alone in Europe, there was no one to work with and it was difficult to get investment. Nowadays, it’s much easier to collaborate with other companies, as we’re currently doing in the move to higher bit rates and integrating PICs and optimising silicon photonics. Another big difference is that today, you can start small and tap into €60m of EU funding.
What are your words of wisdom for young entrepreneurs?
If you want to scale up from an idea, you’ll need a lot of funding behind you.
This will require becoming very skilled at pitching your idea for two minutes to investors, who will usually want to know how they’ll get a return on their investment in around 12 months.
Secondly, if you want to grow fast, you’ll really have to get into the software, as this is the key for future growth.