Warren Clark traces the history of Fianium, a leader in the field of ultrafast fibre lasers
Making the leap from academia to the commercial world can be tough. The harsh realities of competition, coupled with a sudden need to understand economic challenges such as cashflow and credit, provide a stark contrast to the comparatively stable environment of a university research department.
For Anatoly Grudinin, the scale of that challenge was exacerbated by a geographical shift too. Born and raised in Russia, his move to Southampton in the early 90s led eventually to the genesis of Fianium. It is a challenge that he has met with aplomb, judging by the company’s success over the past seven years as it has grown into one of the leading names in fibre lasers.
Grudinin has spent his life working in the field of fibre optics. Educated in Russia, where he graduated from Moscow State Technical University, he began his association with fibre optics at the Russian Academy of Science’s Lebedev Physical Institute (FIAN). Grudinin obviously views this time of his life with affection, since he later chose to base his company name on the establishment where he began his career.
At FIAN he was working in the fibre optics department, led by prominent Russian scientist Professor Eugeny Dianov. Grudinin was one of the first researchers to study the nonlinear properties of silica fibres, and pioneered the discovery of Raman solitons in single-mode optical fibres.
In 1992, Grudinin moved to the UK to join the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton where he spent more than a decade working on passively mode-locked fibre lasers, and on high power fibre lasers and amplifiers based on double-clad rare-earth doped optical fibres. ‘I was really enjoying the work in this area,’ says Grudinin. ‘It was a very exciting and scientifically productive time when the first watt-level fibre lasers started to emerge from research labs. I was very fortunate to work at the best research establishment and to have the luxury of daily discussions with leading figures in this area, such as David Payne, David Hanna, Richard Laming and others. Our leading fibre fabricator, Paul Turner, and I came up with a new idea of how to overcome technical difficulties in pumping double-clad fibres. We invented a new fibre assembly called GTWave (with two letters standing for our names), which is now well-known and commonly used in high power fibre lasers. But at some point, you begin to ask yourself “what can I do next?” I saw huge commercial potential in ultrafast fibre lasers, mainly because of the common perception that “ultrafast” generally meant big, bulky and unaffordable.’
So Grudinin left the ORC to start up Fianium, funded largely from his own pocket, with the sole intention of commercialising ultrafast fibre lasers. ‘The biggest problem at the time was that there wasn’t really a “killer” application for the product. This meant that the traditional start-up route of seeking venture capital funding was not open to us. Furthermore, we didn’t want to take external money at such an early stage, as this would have been both expensive and restrictive. Being self-financed, we had absolute freedom to choose what technologies to develop and when. We have maintained that approach ever since, and still have no VC funding, with all of our R&D financed via reinvested profits.’
Grudinin says that, in some ways, it was a big step from academia into the commercial world – but in others, it was no different. ‘Sure, the academic life presents you with a regular pay-cheque at the end of the month,’ he says. ‘However, the work itself is not so fundamentally different. There is a lot of “science” inside our lasers, and we do significant research before bringing them to market. If you have a good idea, you don’t need to apply for funding and wait for months to learn whether the money was allocated for your proposal. In our company the decision can be made in a day. But we can fund only good ideas and can’t afford to make too many ill-judged decisions. As a result, very often the performance of our lasers matches or exceeds that of PhD students experimenting within funded projects.’
Not every company has the luxury of being able to self-finance virtually from the word ‘go’, but Fianium managed to achieve this by attracting interest in its products from a very early stage. In particular, the scientific community saw potential applications for the femtosecond, picosecond and supercontinuum fibre lasers that Fianium were developing. ‘Because of my academic background,’ says Grudinin, ‘we maintained very strong links with many universities, including the University of Southampton, and this helped us out a lot in those early months. We were able to employ many of the best researchers from these places as a result.’ These strong links remain to this day, and one of the greatest strengths of Fianium is the quality and depth of its R&D department, where all employees have PhDs.
Fianium’s headquarters, based near Southampton, UK
Basing the company in the Southampton area has also been an inspired decision. For the past 20 years or more, the University of Southampton has been a centre of excellence for optics and laser physics. As a result, Southampton has become the home for many successful, high-tech optical engineering companies including York Technologies, Point Source, SPI Lasers, Fibrecore and Sensa – to name just a few. This high-tech hub within the local area has proved to be fundamental to Fianium’s success, providing the wealth of highly skilled optics technicians and engineers essential to produce high volumes of state-of-the-art lasers with the reliability and quality demanded by industrial customers.
Fianium, as a company, has remained focused within a very targeted niche. ‘We concentrate solely on ultrafast fibre lasers,’ says Grudinin. ‘In my view, our success derives from being so focused. We also know our limitations and don’t spread ourselves too thin. This means we make fewer mistakes, which in turn keeps our cost of development relatively low. Our expertise ensures our products are very reliable and efficient too.’
In terms of applications, Fianium’s products are making inroads into the material processing market, which includes photovoltaics, semiconductors and even ophthalmology. Within scientific applications, alongside laboratory uses, there are many biomedical customers too.
Having started as a one-man company in 2003, Fianium has now grown to a workforce of more than 50 people, with offices in the USA (where there is also an applications lab) and Hong Kong – and plans to open a further branch in Germany in the near future. The rest of the world is covered by a comprehensive distribution network.
Though he remains the largest shareholder and has not sought other funding, Grudinin’s strategy has been to offer equity in order to secure the best employees and suppliers. Indeed, the tight structure of the company and its customer base, dominated by the scientific community, meant that Fianium was largely protected from the economic downturn of last year. ‘We saw a 15 per cent increase in our sales in 2009,’ says Grudinin, ‘mainly thanks to academia. However, the balance looks like it will change this year, as academic funding is beginning to drop off, but industrial applications are on their way up.’
Grudinin remains upbeat and positive, believing his company has the potential to grow to the same size as IPG, albeit competing in different fibre laser markets. ‘Our plan is to continue product development in ultrafast fibre lasers,’ he says. ‘We will continue to serve the scientific community and provide a broader range of highly reliable ultrafast products for industrial laser applications.
‘Our lasers are now beginning to enable and establish “killer applications” and as a result, we believe that picosecond and femtosecond lasers will dominate in materials processing, as they have so many advantages for the end user.’