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Northern Lights: The Photonics Industry in Canada

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2009
Laura S. Marshall, Managing Editor, laura.marshall@laurin.com

Canada is a pretty big place: Its surface area is 9,984,670 km2, which means that only Russia and Antarctica are bigger. And photonics is pretty big in Canada, too.

The country is strong in a wide variety of photonic areas, according to a January 2009 survey by the Canadian Photonics Consortium (CPC). These include research capability and infrastructure; industry-academic cluster activity, especially in Ontario and Québec; systems integration; optical communications; image sensors and vision systems; short-pulse laser technology; and emerging biophotonics capability.

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Source: Canadian Photonics Consortium

Canadian photonics technologies are used worldwide in defense and security; health and medicine; manufacturing; energy and lighting; communications; consumer goods; environmental protection; sensing and measurement in the oil, gas, paper and forestry industries; and even entertainment.

The nearly 400 photonics companies in Canada employ a total of more than 20,000 people, collectively generating close to 4.4 billion CAD per year, according to the CPC report. Approximately 85 percent of that revenue comes from exports, and 50 percent of those exports head to the US.

In a country with so much space, clusters are only natural. The province of Ontario is known for biophotonics, according to the CPC, while Québec is known for sensing, although both regions have plenty going on in all photonics disciplines. Activity is more scattered in the western provinces.

Ontario

“Ontario has a strong track record of excellence in photonics,” said Don Wilford, managing director of the Centre for Photonics, part of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), which supports research commercialization and connects academe with industry. “The industry sector is mature and successful, including globally competitive large firms, nimble small and medium enterprises, and a small but vibrant start-up community.”

The Ottawa area, traditionally the focal point of Ontario photonics, is home to communications companies such as Nortel, JDS Uniphase Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Alcatel-Lucent Canada Inc. “This created a strong ecosystem focused on communications,” said John Fielding, a director of business development at OCE.

But that all changed in the early 2000s, when the telecom bubble burst. “One of the effects of the bubble,” he said, “was that the technical and entrepreneurial people took their communications expertise and applied it to other technology sectors [including] biomedical, photovoltaics, industrial photonics and lighting.”

Today, Ontario’s photonics industry is fairly balanced across six market sectors, according to Fielding: information and communications technologies, health and life sciences, defense and security, lighting energy and environmental photonics, industrial photonics, and the entertainment and consumer segments. And although there is still significant activity in Ottawa, the industry distribution has spread to other cities, such as Toronto and Waterloo.

In Ontario, 41 percent of all photonics jobs are in the research-and-development area, according to a March 2009 report authored by Wilford. Nearly a third of jobs are in manufacturing, with the rest almost evenly divided between administration and small-/medium-business development.

Table1Page83.jpgMore than three-quarters of photonics employees work for large companies with more than 250 workers; most are subsidiaries of US corporations, he reported. Small and medium enterprises employ nearly 20 percent of workers, while startups employ only 4 percent.

The Ontario Photonics Industry Network (OPIN), in which both Wilford and Fielding play key roles, works to promote photonics through various initiatives, from offering sponsorships to enable members of the industry to attend trade shows to compiling and distributing promotional materials on photonics in the province.

On the academic side, Ontario is home to university groups and world-class research institutes such as the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre in Ottawa, which Fielding described as a unique-to-Canada photonics fabrication facility that allows companies to do small fabrication runs.

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POP is equipped with state-of-the-art laboratory systems and devices. Courtesy of Pierre Bolduc.

“Ontario has developed a strong capability in biophotonics, principally at the University Health Network in Toronto,” Wilford said. The network’s Laboratory for Applied Biophotonics (LAB), he said, has partnered with the Centre for Biophotonics Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis. “LAB is a unique model – embedded within Canada’s largest research hospital complex and seamlessly integrated with its biomedical research, clinical trials and medical delivery capacities.”

Québec

Ontario isn’t the only photonics hot spot in Canada. Industry and research are booming in Québec as well. Most of the companies are located in Montréal and Québec City; a few others can be found in the Sherbrooke and Gatineau areas.

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Québec City is a hot spot for photonics innovation in Canada.

“The key factors driving the photonics industry in the province of Québec,” said Dr. Michel Têtu, an emeritus professor from Université Laval in Québec City, “are the availability of highly qualified technical personnel, the presence of world-class research centers and institutes working closely with industry, the proximity to key markets in the US and Canada, a dynamic business environment and a strong commitment from governments to support the industry.

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The Pavilion of Optics and Photonics (POP), which opened in 2006 at Université Laval in Québec City, is the home of the Centre d’optique, photonique et laser and the administrative office of the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations. Courtesy of Pierre Bolduc.

Québec City, the provincial capital, has taken special care to home in on photonics in its quest to build a tech-centered creative economy.

Local economic development agency Pôle Québec Chaudière-Appalaches works closely with Montréal-based Investissement Québec as well as area companies and institutions to ensure the success of photonics-related endeavors. Pôle does it all, from facilitating the formation of research and business partnerships between local entities to hosting events and conferences to promoting the area as a desirable spot for expanding foreign companies.

Nonprofit photonics advancement group Québec Photonic Network (QPN), of which Têtu also is president and CEO, serves as a networking and information hub, working to bring together companies, government departments and organizations involved in the area’s optics-photonics industry.

Pôle and the QPN have a big job because there is so much going on with photonics in Québec.

“We have a strong history in optics and photonics research activities dating back to the late forties, Têtu said. Research centers strive to innovate at the basic research and industrial levels; so do major companies such as test and measurement leader Exfo, health science and optoelectronics market powerhouse PerkinElmer, spectrometer maker ABB and laser beam testing equipment manufacturer Gentec-EO.

The Centre d’optique, photonique et laser (COPL) is Canada’s largest university research center in optics/photonics. As a strategic cluster of optics/photonics researchers from a number of Québec province universities, COPL strives to perform both fundamental and applied research; to support industry; and to train the next generation of optics/photonics scientists. Other Québec research institutions with wide-ranging interests include the National Optics Institute, a design and development firm based in Québec City, and the Defence R&D Canada facility in Valcartier, Québec.

“The photonics industry in Québec province is mainly small and medium enterprises which are very diverse, covering many application domains,” said Robert Corriveau, president and CEO of the Québec City-based Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations (CIPI), part of the national Network of Centres of Excellence. CIPI fosters interaction among Canadian scientists from universities, government and industry through research and networking programs.

More than 100 companies in the province generate nearly 5000 jobs; in 2007, 1685 of those jobs fell into the research category. Sixty-nine percent of Québec photonics companies employ fewer than 50 employees, according to a May 2007 report produced by the QPN; only 3 percent employ more than 300. But companies with more than 300 employees offer 27 percent of the jobs; companies that employ more than 100 and fewer than 300 workers make up 38 percent of the job market.

Corriveau said that, because Québec’s photonics companies tend to be smaller, as opposed to mass-production companies, “they were less affected by the economic crisis.”

Québec has a striking spirit of cooperation between researchers and businesses – even those competing for the same funding and the same customer base seem to have little difficulty pooling resources to develop photonic solutions.

“Québec City is spread over a relatively small area with a tightly knit society. So the members of the scientific and engineering community know each other or/and they have common contacts. The same can also be said for the commercial community and others,” Têtu said. “That’s probably why we can more easily partner on a collaborative effort. This being said, we also recognize that the market is international, and the competition is international. So we have to join efforts to face the challenge of being competitive at the international level.”

Elsewhere in Canada

Other regions of Canada are a little less organized than Québec and Ontario in their efforts to take advantage of photonics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t glimmers of activity.

The prairie provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – have 95 photonics companies, employing almost 3000 people among the three of them. In British Columbia, there are 50 companies, creating more than 2000 jobs.

And even the Atlantic provinces, which are made up of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, have a total of eight companies that employ more than 300 people among them. Collectively, the prairies, the Atlantic provinces and British Columbia generate 796 million CAD, far less than the 3.6 billion CAD raked in by Ontario and Québec. There do not appear to be any photonics companies in the Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory or Nunavut.

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Niagara College’s Welland campus in Ontario has a photonics lab with a cleanroom for laser research. Courtesy of Niagara College.

Several glimmers of photonics activity outside Ontario and Québec are occurring at institutions such as the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the National Research Council’s National Institute of Nanotechnology, which also is in Edmonton and is affiliated with the university. There also are photonics groups and projects at other universities, including the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the University of Calgary in Alberta. The University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon is home to the Canadian Light Source, the national center for synchrotron research.

Because Ontario and Québec have done so well with the cluster model, the CPC has encouraged the other provinces to develop a focused plan and a dedicated cluster to support and promote photonics innovation.

Education

A number of Canadian universities have photonics groups or centers. Algonquin College in Ottawa offers diploma and bachelor’s degree programs, while Laval students can earn a master’s degree in biophotonics. McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has a bachelor’s degree in applied engineering in photonics, and the University of Waterloo in Ontario offers a certificate in education for photonics professionals. Brock College in St. Catharines, Ontario, even offers a graduate certificate in lasers.

Around the world, photonics as a field has been suffering from a general lack of trained engineers and technicians, and the CPC reports that this is the case in Canada as well. “Apart from the university education, there is not much exposure to photonics for students at the primary- and secondary-school levels,” Têtu noted.

But organizations such as the Ontario Photonics Education and Training Association, which was founded by another OCE director of business development, Marc Nantel, and the QPN have adopted the cause of building up the number of Canadian photonics engineers and technicians and of attracting younger students to science and technology careers.

Outlook and goals

As big as photonics is in Canada, there is always room for growth.

The CPC has outlined some strategies for general success: Photonics companies should be more proactive about reaching out to customers, to ensure the development of photonic solutions that will fit their needs. Clusters and national photonics organizations should establish information portals to facilitate knowledge exchange between companies and researchers. Canadian technology should be increasingly commercialized, perhaps via interagency programs using alternative financing and technology transfer methods, to ensure that technological developments are exploited to the maximum. R&D efforts, the group advised, should focus on areas of strategic importance to Canada.


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