From Russia with light

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Carlos Lee talks with Alexey Zarenbin, general director and founder of Forc-Photonics, a Russian manufacturer of fibre Bragg gratings, optical sensors and monitoring systems, light sources and high-power amplifiers






What’s the background to you joining Forc-Photonics? 

In 1991, I finished the institute and graduated with a PhD in electronics engineering several years later from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. At that time, the Soviet Union was breaking up and relationships between companies were weak. As a result, it was difficult for young engineers to find work and I spent the next 10 years working for a trading company. By the early 2000s, the economy had started to improve and I was contacted by the director of the fiber optics research center of the Russian academy of sciences (Forc Ras), who offered me the position of director of international relations. Forc had been founded in 1993 to carry out fundamental and applied research on a variety of problems of modern fiber optics and was the principal research centre in this field in Russia and recognised as one of the world’s leaders. 

Over the next five years working at Forc, I became increasingly aware of the need to set up a commercial spin-off to commercialise the institute’s research. Initially, there was some reluctance to go down this road, but I persisted and, in 2005, I finally got the go ahead to set up Forc-Photonics with me as general director. Our mission was to commercialise Forc’s research – mainly in the areas of special optical fibres, fibre light sources (including fibre lasers) and fibre-optic sensors. In the beginning, it was difficult to decide which products to start with as there had been a lot of different developments with fibres, so we had many business possibilities. We finally opted for two devices: fibre Bragg gratings (FBGs) and fibre-optic sensors and, in 2007, we concluded our first contract with the Iter project (international experimental fusion reactor), which we’ve been working on ever since.

What have been the main developments over the past 15 years?

In terms of products, we’ve expanded our range to include various types of FBGs, FBG sensors and interrogation monitors, speciality fibres, fibre broadband light sources and fibre laser cavities based on speciality fibres 1-2 micrometres for Ytterbium, Erbium and Thulium. We are now focusing a lot on LMA Ytterbium-doped tapered fibres and high-power fibre amplifiers for high peak power pulse fibre lasers. In fact, for Photonics West in 2021 we hope to have developed in a new range of fibre cable based on hollow core fibers for different applications. 

We now also provide three types of services: verification of measuring instruments for thermometry, magnetron sputtering and high-temperature combined vibration testing. We’ve also become much more internationally oriented and the company has recently become a member of several international optical organisations and associations such as Epic, the international society for optics and photonics (Spie), and the optoelectronic industry development association (Oida).

Are there any particular challenges running a photonics company in Russia? 

One of the differences compared with Western Europe is that, in Russia, businesses tend to be less focused on specific areas and a photonics company in Russia is typically involved in many areas. Also, Russian companies tend to be more closed and less willing to collaborate, which is not good for business or technological development.

A second challenge is with customers as it’s difficult to buy products from abroad because of the strict regulations for both importing and exporting products. 

For these reasons, the photonics industry in Russia is much smaller than in other countries and company growth tends to be slower.  

Do you have a lot of partners and business outside Russia? 

Yes, we have distributors and partners in Check Republic, USA, Germany, Japan, China and India for example and about 70-80 per cent of our revenue comes from abroad so we’re now doing business worldwide. One of the problems is that our manufacturing processes are not translatable to Europe. We use chemical technology and magnetron spray technology. We don’t buy a lot from outside Russia, although we buy some standard fibres from the US and Europe and electronic components like pump switches mainly from China as these products are hard to find in Russia. 

What is your advice for young entrepreneurs?

Business acumen and the right entrepreneurial spirit is more important than education. To move up the promotional ladder, young people need certain qualities like determination, reliability and flexibility and the ability to inspire others. They also need to be willing to take risks and to collaborate and before setting up a company, It’s important to get a grounding in business practices by working for a large company.