Invest in Photonics shows VCs the money
BORDEAUX, France – With a global market that experts predict could grow 8 to 10 percent annually to reach €480 billion by 2015, photonics is on the rise – and the recent Invest in Photonics convention revealed just where venture capitalists and industry leaders should focus their attention: zetabyte data communications, diagnostic health care, competitive manufacturing and sustainable clean energy.
Photonics can be difficult to segment because of the large amount of industry overlap, according to analysts; as an enabling technology, photonics is often commercialized outside of its industry. This makes it challenging for VCs to evaluate opportunities.
That’s why the two-day international business partnering convention was created: to keep VCs informed about the future of photonics, backing up predictions with market data from various economic sectors, said Georgio Anania, conference chairman. “The photonics industry will have a major impact on a range of industries. We bring the key players together to help make this happen.”
Attendance at the event, held Dec. 12-13, rose about 20 percent this year to 150 people, organizers said, as industry leaders, VCs, photonics specialists, market analysts and trade representatives came from across Europe, the US and Asia. In a special funding session, 19 companies targeted a total of USD $90 million (€72 million), more than doubling earlier funding goals.
Analysts and speakers from companies around the world focused on three fast-growth markets: consumer goods, cleantech and health care, as well as the influence of Asia. Topics included the early diagnosis of diseases through new detection methods, communications and data infrastructure, consumer devices, LED lighting, lasers, advanced displays and sensors, 3-D IC packaging, microfabrication of glass, and PCB and solar energy.
“Photonics is ubiquitous, yet often invisible,” said Steve Anderson of SPIE in his opening address. “It is a light-based enabling technology that underpins just about everything, from consumer devices to cleantech and from communications to life sciences.”
“Smartphones, for example, are made using 13 different laser-based machinery, contain photonics components and are enabled using fiber optic technology,” Anderson added. “A significant number of commercially successful companies that rely on photonics technology do not associate themselves with the photonics industry.”
He wasn’t the only one to talk about lasers: Several speakers discussed the growing market potential for lasers, particularly fiber lasers, which are being adopted faster than any other laser technology in history. Lasers enable the processing of difficult materials such as glass, ceramics, plastics, metals and alloys. For green processes, laser ablation is a dry technique that avoids the use/disposal of dangerous chemicals that would be required for wet/dry etching. For applications such as marking and scribing, the parts don’t even need cleaning, which would otherwise waste water or solvents.
François Valencony, general manager at Mérieux Développement, and Eric Mottay, president and CEO of Amplitude Systèmes, also discussed the growth potential of ultrafast lasers in medical and other large-volume applications. Another hot technology highlighted during the conference was the LED, especially for lighting. LEDs currently represent half the sales involved in backlighting in televisions and mobile devices, and 13 percent compound growth is expected over the next two years. The market will grow from USD $11.4 billion in 2012 to USD $17 billion in 2018, according to Yole Developpement.
“[The] LED is unlike any other lighting technology in history,” said Hans Nikol, vice president of LED Innovation and Strategy at Philips Lighting. “Today, every light technology, from the candle to fluorescent and halogen, co-exists. We strongly believe that [LEDs] will wipe out previous existing lighting technologies.”
Another emerging area is integrated photonics: doing with light what had been previously achieved with electronics. “Areas where photonics can provide solutions include the necessity to reduce the power consumption of running and cooling computer servers as well as routers that are becoming increasingly more power hungry,” said Pierre Billardon, president of Carl Zeiss France. “Other markets are reducing the cost of health care and improving the early detection of debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s.”
Four areas offer investment potential in solar technologies, said Raffi Garabedian, chief technical officer at First Solar: incremental developments that can improve the dominant platform technologies with minimal factory retooling; metrologies for improved quality and process controls in manufacturing; balance of system controls for low-cost power conversion, grid integration and controls and prediction and forecasting: and disruptive new photovoltaic technologies promising low system costs and improved efficiency.
In a world moving to zetabyte communications, photonics will be important in solving problems associated with the need to develop new architectures that will be required to scale virtualized networks economically, said Ian Jenks, chairman of Intune Networks.
Analysts acknowledged the lead that many Asian companies have in certain areas of photonics. In particular, they cited AMOLEDs, where Samsung and LG Display are well-established, followed by several emerging companies from around Asia. China has the top capacity in LED reactors, although it only started producing them in 2009. Participants voiced concerns about IP protection. Nevertheless, Zeiss’ Billardon presented the company’s successful entry two years ago into fast-growth markets providing medical equipment to hospitals in tier-II cities such as Chengdu. “China is a great business opportunity. Go there!” he said.
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