More funding required for growth in UK photonics, say industry experts

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Greg Blackman reports from Photonex in Coventry UK, where the UK photonics industry was under discussion

An increase in funding and greater confidence in the photonics products made in the UK, were the pleas from industry experts taking part in a roundtable discussion on the UK photonics industry at Photonex on 16 October. The panellists speaking at the trade fair, which took place in Coventry, UK, also said that ways to bridge the gap between research and industry needed to be addressed for growth in UK photonics.

Mark Sims, a professor at the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, said: ‘In the end it comes down to funding; there are more ideas than funding.’ He was talking about funding for taking research through to commercialisation. He asked for an increase in the UK government’s science budget, which has remained flat since 2011.

David Gahan, an industry consultant, commented that there needs to be a shift in where government funding is allocated, giving more emphasis and follow-on funding to prototype products at the more advanced Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). TRLs are a measure of the maturity of new products.

Gahan said there was little appreciation of how long it can take for new technology to be fully commercialised and reach the real world. He said that most funding is allocated in the early stages of development, but that only stretches so far, to around TRL4 or TRL5, he said. However, it’s not until TRL7 that a prototype would be demonstrated in a real world environment. It is in these latter stages, from TRL5-6, where there is a lack financial support, according to Gahan, and, while Technology Strategy Board schemes do provide funding for this purpose, they only go part of the way to address this.

Anke Lohmann, director of photonics at the Electronics, Sensors, Photonics (ESP) KTN, commented on the gap between manufacturing and academia, which is most marked in the biophotonics sector, she said. According to John Lincoln, CEO of the UK Photonics Leadership Group, the UK doesn’t bridge this gap particularly well.

Lincoln said that Germany covers this gap via the Fraunhofer institutes, while in the US it’s down to confidence in selling its products. ‘In the UK, we have neither,’ Lincoln commented. He said the UK needs to foster institutes that help bridge the gap between research and industry and UK companies need to have confidence in their products.

According to the UK Photonics Leadership Group, the UK photonics industry is worth around £10.5 billion and provides jobs for 70,000 employees. UK expertise is well balanced, with a distribution based on employment of optical systems (20 per cent), medical (19 per cent), production (15 per cent) and defence (10 per cent). The UK also exports 75 per cent of its output in the photonics sector, which is its big strength.

Lincoln said the UK excels at making lasers, but there isn’t a lot of laser processing in the UK. Sectors where the UK is particularly strong, according to the group, include space, life science, pharma, defence, food and environmental sensing, and advanced manufacturing.

Lincoln also drew attention to David Willetts’, the UK Minister for Universities and Science, ‘eight great technologies’, which Willetts named at the beginning of the year as technologies that will propel the UK to future growth, and includes things like big data, space, and synthetic biology. Lincoln welcomed the funding, but said that they did not drill down into the enabling technologies that made these sectors function, although Sims commented that that’s beginning to change in the space sector.

One of the problems with the photonics sector, which was remarked upon in his introduction by Carlos Lee, director general of the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC), who was chairing the session, is that the term ‘photonics’ is not very well known outside of the industry. Lincoln described it as a ‘hidden technology’.

Lincoln said photonics enables everything, but not one single thing, which makes it very difficult to secure funding for. There is funding from the Catapult centres for ‘Future Cities’, for instance, but not for photonics. However, Lincoln said that this is an opportunity for UK photonic companies, as a lot of photonic technology goes into Future Cities.

While funding might be at the heart of growth in UK photonics, there are other methods of encouraging growth such as greater communication between companies manufacturing photonics technologies and supporting those organisations that help turn R&D into a commercial product.