FEATURE
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Knowledge centres

Warren Clark looks at the phenomenon of photonics clusters, which are springing up in Europe and beyond at an ever increasing rate

The concept of sharing knowledge and co-operating with other companies operating in the same field may be alien to some, but in emerging technology fields collaboration is essential to ongoing development. Photonics clusters, which exist in various forms worldwide, represent our own industry’s efforts at open co-operation among suppliers, governmental representatives and users of lasers.

Such has been the growth of clusters that at Photonics Europe in Strasbourg in April there was an inaugural meeting of European Clusters, coordinated by SPIE Europe, the Photonics Unit of the European Commission, and Rhenaphotonics Alsace, the regional cluster for the Strasbourg and Alsace area. ‘There are a lot of clusters in Europe,’ says Veronique Parasote, project manager for Rhenaphotonics and for the European Cluster meeting. ‘However, many of them don’t know much about the others. This first meeting was set up to encourage these organisations to interact, and for people to put names to faces to ease future cooperation.

‘There is also a need to understand how clusters operate in different countries, and indeed how different types of cluster operate, such as those based in academia, industry, government and so on. One of the biggest topics of discussion – and this may well be the theme of next year’s meeting, the details of which are still to be decided – was funding. There is a great deal of variation among the types of funding: some are mainly governmentfunded, some entirely privately-funded and most have some form of membership-fee based funding. Part of the reason for bringing these 28 clusters together in Strasbourg was to also encourage greater participation in the Photonics21 initiative and to discuss how clusters could be involved.’

Parasote is already planning for a similar event next year, and hopes to grow the number of attending clusters. ‘This year, we had a few companies attend from countries that do not yet have any clusters at all,’ she says. ‘Many of those are now in the process of setting up their own organisations, having learned from colleagues in other countries; this is exactly the sort of outcome we had hoped for. Part of my job between now and next year’s meeting is to identify other emerging clusters and ensure they are represented there. We’re hoping for at least 40 clusters next year.’

John Magan is deputy head of the Photonics Unit at the European Commission, which works closely with the Photonics21 platform, and helped organise the Strasbourg meeting. ‘From the Commission’s point of view, we recognise how important the clusters are for European photonics, offering a range of support to the local community through strong networks at a regional level. We were pleasantly surprised by the response to this meeting and believe there is plenty of scope for pan-European collaboration within photonics. Ultimately, our aim is to facilitate closer cooperation and exchange best practice at every level and spread that information throughout the EU.

‘Clusters complement what we do in EU funding and provide local support where the EU can’t,’ he continues. ‘They also complement the activities of the technology platform.’

The Photonics unit is also responsible for the dissemination of about €45m of funding for photonics research projects every year, but such projects need to be able to demonstrate EU-wide benefits in order to secure that funding.

Going forward, Magan wants to work more closely with the clusters at EU level and is looking at ways in which this can be achieved. ‘At the end of the day, we want to set up something that is light, information-ready and maintains low barriers to entry for those organisations that want to get involved.’

The German approach

With Germany representing a major focal point for the photonics industry in Europe, it inevitably has its fair share of clusters. OptecNet Deutschland is the supra-regional body in Germany that pulls together nine regional competence networks for optical technologies. It was founded in 2000 as an initiative of the German Ministry of Research and Education. OptecNet’s mission is to support the optical technologies as key technologies for Germany.

‘We have more than 460 members throughout Germany,’ says Dr Andreas Ehrhardt, managing director of Photonics Baden-Wurttemberg and vice president of OptecNet Deutschland. ‘Our members encompass large enterprises, SMEs and start-ups, both manufacturers and users, as well as research institutes and other educational establishments.

‘This demonstrates the holistic approach of our work. The membership fees, which contribute to 50 per cent of our funding, depend on the sales revenue and the form of the organisation. With our work we regard ourselves as complementary to industrial associations like Spectaris or VDMA.’

Ehrhardt says that the benefits of joining a photonics cluster are often hard to quantify. ‘Besides our special services – our training seminars and our joint booths on exhibitions – we are providing a platform for information exchange and for making contacts. Sometimes that information or those contacts made do not necessarily pay off immediately. We like to think of ourselves as a future-oriented organisation by establishing innovative supporting structures.’

German cluster organisation OptecNet frequently arranges booth space at major exhibitions, enabling smaller companies to have a presence that they would not normally be able to afford.

OptecNet concentrates its activities in three main areas: supporting research and development; supporting education and training; and providing marketing and public relations expertise to its members. For R&D, the support is in the form of establishing working groups of company representatives and researchers in order to initiate R&D projects and exchange information. These working groups meet three or four times a year and cooperate if useful.

For education, the organisation arranges several seminars and workshops throughout the year, and also supports study programmes on optics-related courses. There are also numerous careers events, aimed at encouraging students to pursue a career in photonics. The PR activities mainly revolve around hosting booth space at major exhibitions. For example, OptecNet, together with Spectaris and with funding of the German Ministry of Economics and Technology, organised a joint booth for 44 co-exhibitors at the USA’s Photonics West earlier this year, most of which would never have been able to afford a presence there otherwise.

There are many other networking events held throughout the year too, such as ‘Members meet Members’ events, where senior staff from member organisations are encouraged to network, and also to come together to lobby for political support and funding for various optics-related projects. One such event held recently even attracted the German Research Minister.

‘We also have many members who are actually customers of optics companies,’ says Ehrhardt. ‘They may first have approached us asking for information about photonics in general. We will have put them in touch with some of our members, and later, they have decided to join us because they found that co-operation along the value chain so useful.’

In a wider context, Ehrhardt believes there is still scope for better co-operation between clusters in different countries. ‘German clusters are well established, and we are maybe further ahead in terms of structure and development than some of our colleagues in other nations,’ he says, adding that the European Cluster initiative could help establish better relationships among the clusters.

A UK perspective

Photonics Cluster UK (PCUK), now seven years old, is one of the UK’s largest cluster organisations and, as project manager Alex Clarke explains, there are differences between clusters here and across the Atlantic.

‘In the US, they have a centre of excellence that is based on real estate,’ he says, ‘whereas, in the UK, it’s more about the industry itself. The UK cluster speaks for its industry as well as being its servant.

‘Our core bread-and-butter work is putting together membership support plans. The managing director of a photonics R&D company would come to us wanting support in two areas usually: commercial aspirations or technical problems.’

On the commercial side, the organisation can provide information on routes to appropriate funding, or set up introductions to other companies for potential collaborative partnerships. Technical support comes in the form of partnering programmes and training. PCUK has links to research facilities that companies can access, including laboratories in Aston Science Park, Birmingham, UK, which form an extension of the cluster’s own R&D facilities.

‘PCUK deals with both start-up companies and larger enterprises,’ continues Clarke. ‘An electronics company that wants to complement its product range with optoelectronic technology can get support and skills from PCUK. If it’s new technology then that support can be training, R&D facilities, putting them in touch with the right people, or providing information on routes-tomarket for their products.

‘PCUK makes sure that the technology is in shape and then helps to set up partnering with those who have already climbed that particular staircase.’

PCUK is seven years old and has links to approximately 5,000 organisations worldwide, 60 per cent of which are based in the UK, with 70 per cent of those being SMEs (small and medium enterprises). The Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network is a key partner and PCUK has connections with the Scottish Optoelectronics Association as well as other Research and Technology Organisations (RTOs) such as The Welding Institute.

Photonics Cluster UK aims to provide continuing support for the industry. ‘What starts a business is a market,’ concludes Clarke, ‘and once you understand where the market is going then conditions can be put in place for the business to succeed.’

The future

The cluster landscape is ever-changing, with new organisations springing up every month. One of the more recent clusters to be established is the one in Belgium, established earlier this year with the help of the Walloon Government. It was created as an initiative of PromOptica, the Belgian association for the promotion of optics, and founder members include Amos, the Liege Space Centre, Euroscan, FN Herstal, Kabelwerk Eupen, Lambda-X, Lasea, Rovitech, Technifutur and Thales Alenia Space ETCA.

Jean LePrince, co-ordinator of the cluster, says: ‘Our objectives are to stimulate knowledge exchange in order to increase economic return, to promote bottom-up innovation through networking, and to share competences coming from industry and research sectors.

‘We will be co-ordinating our efforts with other Belgian clusters, as well as those in other countries so as to create the best opportunities for synergy, to encourage creativity, and to explore new development paths. Within the broader context of photonics, we have also set ourselves a series of priority areas of activity: materials processing, laser and optical instrumentation, medical instrumentation, industrial vision, and research in optics and photonics.’

With another European Cluster meeting planned for next year, it seems that there is support for and momentum behind ongoing cluster activity throughout the continent.