Technical prowess is finely crafted in Northern Ireland
A hundred years ago, construction of the HMS Titanic was completed, and the proud citizens of Belfast gathered to see the majestic vessel slip from dry dock into the harbor, touching the ocean for the first time. The town swelled with pride at the huge accomplishment and could only wonder at what new technological and engineering marvels it might yet live to see. Not even the sinking of the “Unsinkable Ship” a year later could dampen the country’s pride in workmanship. But that pride could not ensure steady economic seas ahead into the next century.
Today, Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland are home to only 2.8 percent of the overall UK population, but the region has earned 7 percent of foreign direct investment. It is home to pharmaceutical companies, telecom giants, financiers and software developers – and a small but growing core of photonics thought leaders.
Behind many of Northern Ireland’s recent science and technology successes is Invest NI, the region’s economic agency. The organization is tasked with helping startups and existing companies alike maximize their potential, no matter their industry. It specializes in helping companies navigate government programs, properly organize imports and exports, and attract potential investors. It also offers outreach to foreign companies looking for a new place to set up shop or hoping to find new distributors.
Belfast and surrounding towns in Northern Ireland host several well-established and up-and-coming photonics companies.
Last year, Invest NI offered £50 million ($80 million) of research and development assistance – one-third the amount supplied by regional companies themselves. The support for science and technology companies goes toward research and development projects and trade development activities, including participation in trade missions to major foreign markets such as the US and China, said Helen Scullion, Invest NI representative.
“Invest NI principally supports businesses in the manufacturing and tradable services sectors,” she added. “This includes firms across the entire spectrum of industry, from food processing to high-tech life sciences firms working on cutting-edge products.”
One of Invest NI’s success stories directly affected one of the region’s few photonics companies, Yelo Ltd., based in the town of Carrickfergus. On one of the organization’s recent US trade missions, it helped Yelo pick up about $1 million in new export contracts with companies in San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; earlier this year, the company landed another $500,000 in telecom deals with Boston-area companies. The contracts speak to Yelo’s expertise in both instruments for testing telecom lasers and radar systems for the aerospace industry. Yelo asserts that it now supplies 70 percent of the laser-reliability systems used in 40- and 100-Gb/s data systems.
Less successful, however, have been Invest NI’s dealings with Cirdan Imaging.
In May, the Irish Times reported that Hugh Cormican, co-founder of Belfast-based scientific imaging pioneer Andor Technology plc, is attempting to start a new biomedical imaging business venture. Cirdan Imaging, which purportedly will focus on advancing cancer diagnostic and therapeutic tools, needs to set up both R&D and manufacturing facilities but has received little help from Invest NI and other sources in the current economic setting.
Despite Cormican’s experience and standing in the bioimaging field – he also helped run mammography specialist Bioptics Inc. – Invest NI has offered the nascent company only £50,000 ($100,000) thus far. Although more financing may yet spring forth from Invest NI, Cormican is reportedly exploring starting up his new company south of the border in the Republic of Ireland instead, according to the Times.
Other prominent photonics companies in the region include Raptor Photonics Ltd. in Larne (see sidebar); Nortel Networks, which runs a telecommunications engineering center in Monktown; and Tyco International, which operates an R&D center in Belfast.
Raptor Photonics’ product line includes a variety of electron-multiplying CCD cameras, including the Hawk (left) and Falcon (right) series.
The jewel of Northern Ireland’s photonics crown, however, remains Andor. The company has weathered the recent global downturn well – though not without some strain – and is reporting success around the globe.
The company was spun out in 1989 from research performed at Queen’s University Belfast. Today, it sells high-resolution cameras for a variety of biomedical and other scientific applications. Its customers are spread across 55 countries and are supported by more than 300 staff in 16 offices worldwide. Bolstered by a more than 40 percent increase in revenues and operating profits over the past year, Andor has announced plans to add a second site (and 80 new staffers) in Belfast inside of two years.
Finding the right people to fill these slots won’t necessarily be easy, as Northern Ireland faces some of the same problems as other places, including the US: Not enough qualified workers are available, despite generally high unemployment rates.
Still, Donal Denvir, co-founder and technical director of the company, wouldn’t change locations. Andor’s location is not ideal; it has a small pool of experienced people and is more distant from key OEMs – and the company has worried about such things, he said.
“That said, it has not proved to be a major obstacle – so far, anyway,” he added. “Photonics is a global business; that means that the people we sell to and work with also think globally, they are accepting of international travel [and] accepting of working with people of all nationalities; in fact, they see all this as a positive aspect of the sector that adds energy and spreads economic risk.
“After all, the photonics industry plays a key part in making communications and distribution of information around the world easier and easier.”
In recent years, Invest NI’s Scullion said, the country has become more successful at attracting foreign investment from knowledge-based sectors such as software, and information and communications technologies. The region offers high-tech expertise, industrial ingenuity and a welcoming lifestyle, she added, along with attractive and competitive financial incentives, recruitment and training programs, and R&D and other business support.
Amid the docks where the Titanic once was home, a similarly stupendous effort is under way to create new economic prosperity and capitalize on the pride of craftsmanship gained through the efforts of long-ago shipwrights.
Interview with Olivier Bernard, Raptor Photonics
How did Raptor Photonics get its start?
Raptor was founded in October 2006 by Stephen Hamilton, Brendan Rolston and [me]. The three founders were working with Andor Technology at the time, when we saw an opportunity to develop new camera technology for the homeland security and surveillance market. Andor wanted to focus on the scientific market only. Raptor is self-founded, with no VC [venture capital] and no bank loan. We were profitable more or less from year one. Raptor now [have] 10 employees and are a very profitable company with a very healthy order book and product pipeline.
What are the prime technologies that drive the company?
Initially, we focused our development on [a] small and rugged EMCCD [electron-multiplying CCD] camera for video surveillance. The Hawk EM247 camera has been a tremendous success for Raptor. It is the most compact, rugged and low-powered EMCCD camera in the market today. We then had the opportunity, through a partnership with Thales, to develop new cameras using InGaAs technology. Raptor is fast becoming a leading player in the SWIR [short-wavelength infrared] market. Today, we are developing new cameras using scientific CMOS, which will be used in both the industrial and scientific markets. We are also working on new visible/SWIR cameras.
Do you collaborate with anyone in Northern Ireland on photonics projects?
Today, we don’t have any local collaboration on photonics projects. We are part of a European FP7 project which includes Fiat and Thales. This project aims at providing the European automotive industry with the next generation of imaging cameras, based on new core sensing technology, allowing both visible and shortwave-infrared response. The goal is to make our vehicles safer and more comfortable in the near future.
Is Raptor a growing company? Is attracting good technical staff an issue?
Raptor has 10 employees and is growing fast. We are looking into additional staff in Europe to efficiently capture the industrial and scientific markets. Attracting good staff is always an issue for [a] smaller company, but we have been very lucky so far. Northern Ireland has a good pool of good engineers.
What are the major challenges facing Raptor – if any – given its location?
Our biggest challenge is to continue to expand in the different markets globally and to keep at the leading edge of camera technology. Northern Ireland is a perfect location for [a] high-tech company such as Raptor.
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