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The Photonics Europe Perspective

By Dirk Fabian

Every even numbered year, SPIE Europe organizes one of the largest European optics conferences in Strasbourg, France. Photonics Europe offers a unique look at the state of the photonics market in Europe and draws researchers from across Europe and the rest of the globe. Strasbourg itself is a pleasant Alsatian city with a tasty mix of French bakeries and German restaurants which quickly made me forget about the long flight from Seattle.

This was my first visit to Strasbourg, enabled by the Vrije Universiteit Student Chapter's organization of a workshop for students and new professionals on "Entrepreneurship in Photonics." Planning for this event began in August of 2007, and I was not going to miss the conclusion of all that work! Western Europe is also one of my focus areas for expanding the student chapter program, so additional social and networking events were offered. It was a great chance to meet students from numerous European research programs and learn what opportunities and concerns occupy their minds.

The main feeling I took away from the entire conference was one of opportunity. Students in Europe have a great deal of mobility in their choice of research labs, especially through programs like Erasmus Mundus. Once leaving school, strong economies and government investment in research have made post-docs relatively easy to obtain. This is all good news for students, as funded research positions are always in demand. However, one aspect of this growth that students often fail to consider is the increased chance to become a successful entrepreneur. The "Entrepreneurship in Photonics" conference was designed to address the big gap in knowledge between the academic path of development and the entrepreneurial one. Specifically, once you have a good idea, how do you actually turn it in to a product and a business?

Four talented speakers described their experience as CEOs, founders, and photonics industry watchers. Kathleen Perkins, former CEO of Breault Research Organization, spoke on the need for creative scientists and engineers to address current global problems and the potential opportunities this creates for business development. The best business ideas address real world problems, so the bigger the problem, the bigger the reward for a solution. She particularly advised prospective entrepreneurs to work on their communication and people skills, so that their ideas can rise to the top in the global marketplace. Using examples of young entrepreneurs that she knows, Kathleen gave the audience the motivation that they could accomplish something similar. [View her slides]

Frank Wyrowski of LightTrans GmbH took the audience through the process for developing a product, but cautioned that in the long process of developing a product "high tech company founders often love their tech too much and forget their customers." Marc Goldchstein of Vrije Universiteit Brussel echoed this wisdom,"business people often bring embarrassing questions to scientists, such as, 'Who needs this?' and 'Have you talked to your customers?'" Marc also emphasized the need for technical people to learn a wide range of additional skills, or build multidisciplinary teams, to minimize the risk of their start-up. [View his slides]

Dr. Marc Goldchstein gives students and early career professionals tips to succeed in their endeavours outside the lab.

Gary Colquhoun, CEO of Fibre Photonics, discussed how companies need to work globally and prototype quickly to succeed. Some regions of the world are particularly ripe for innovation and business growth due to R&D expenditures, patent holdings, and an abundance of skilled workers. Starting a business in a good environment can only improve chances for success. However, success still depends on business skills such as marketing and product development that many technologists lack. In his view, "hero's die, but teams survive." [View his slides]

The Entrepreneurship Workshop was well attended and featured four noteable speakers.

The session was well-received and, in addition to a full room of students, notables like Ronan Burgess (European Commission) and Ralph James (SPIE Vice-President) were spotted in the audience. Students were enthusiastic about the program, and spent the evening discussing the points of the day with the speakers over Alsatian cuisine at a local restaurant. Our table discussed the differences between US and European patent law. This may seem like a boring subject, but it turns out that giving a paper at a conference can destroy your chance for a patent in Europe, but means much less in the United States.

In general, the growth of the photonics industry in Europe takes a different path than in North America. The European Commission specifically has played a larger role than government groups in the US, providing specific incentives and funding for the development of photonics-based research and business. Partnerships that cross countries, link businesses and research centers, and connect students and educators to a wide range of opportunities are especially important in the EU.

On the research front, the best presentation I saw at the conference was Jim Grote's (Air Force Research Laboratory) plenary talk on using DNA-based polymers as an organic optical material. Incredibly dense with results, Grote's presentation showed numerous optical and mechanical properties for DNA processed with CTMA. Lasers, blue LEDS, OFETS, and electro-optic modulators have all been constructed with various processed forms of salmon DNA, and Grote hopes to find ways to create self-assembling and repairing circuits using this material.

The final student event of the week was a breakfast for Student Chapter leaders and others interested in developing their connections in Europe. This breakfast discussion with SPIE leaders Kevin Harding, Maria Yzuel, and current student leaders Sara Van Overmeire (Vrije Universiteit) and Amy Thompson (Univ. of Central Florida) encouraged students to pursue professional development in addition to their technical program. I was on hand to talk about how SPIE can help students network through the resources of Student Chapters, and to feed coffee and orange juice to the early morning gathering.

This was unfortunately a short trip to Europe, and before long, I was back on a plane. Thanks to everyone who made Photonics Europe successful, especially Nathalie Vermeulen and Sara Van Overmeire, first time conference chairs for SPIE!