Faster, lighter, more durable and ultimately cheaper in the end: The benefits of photonic circuits are significant for a wide range of applications. And the Netherlands plays an important role worldwide in the development and application of this key technology. In recent years, led by PhotosShare laid a solid foundation under the Dutch integrated photonics ecosystem. In this final episode, we explore the playing field with Kathleen Philips (imec) and Boudewijn Docter (EFFECT Photonics). Read the whole series here†
In recent weeks, we have seen that the Dutch ecosystem around integrated photonics is doing well through talks with representatives from all corners of this rapidly growing sector. It is clear that a lot of investment is needed to make things even better in the near future. But in addition, according to general manager Kathleen Philips from imec in the Holst Center, three factors are crucial: Choosing the right technology, ‘economies of scale’ and talent.
imec’s head office is located in Leuven; in the Netherlands, the renowned research institute is located in Eindhoven (as part of the Holst Center on the High Tech Campus) and Wageningen (with the OnePlanet Research Center). Although the Netherlands mainly focuses on production platforms Indium Phosphide (InP) and Silicon Nitride (SiN), Kathleen Philips wants to champion internationalization by joining CMOS-based work platforms such as Silicon Photonics (SiPh). “It provides the best opportunities for international support, and it is crucial to our growth ambitions.”
What is integrated photonics?
Photonics is similar to electronics. But instead of electrons, it uses photons (light) to transmit information. Photonic technology detects, generates, transports and processes light. Current applications include solar cells, sensors and fiber optic networks. Photonic chips, in jargon Photonic integrated circuits Called PICs, various photonic and often electronic features are integrated into a microchip to create smaller, faster and more energy efficient devices. Because they are made like traditional chips (using wafer-scale technology), mass production is also within reach – resulting in a drop in prices. Read more here.
At imec, Kathleen Philips has an excellent overview of the status of photonics development in the low countries. In this way, she manages to combine the Dutch emphasis on indium phosphide and silicon nitride with ‘Leuven’ expertise in silicon photonics. “We must be careful not to operate in ‘magnificent isolation’, but it is precisely in the hybrid combination of platforms that we find the desired connection to the world stage. In addition, Silicon Photonics is highly compatible with classic and standard CMOS chip production lines, the value of which should never be underestimated. Told you; if you need good lasers or low-loss waveguides, InP and SiN platforms are a significant addition. “
The next step is to create a ‘economies of scale’, says Philips. “High volume is needed to get the end product cheap. This automatically means that you have to cross borders. Even a European standard is insufficient in this regard, we must also look at America and Asia. Photonics sees the same development as in the semiconductor industry: the promise lies in the high volumes, and the price is falling due to upscaling. ”
The Netherlands has everything it takes to take that leap, Philips emphasizes. “You have to be top class to have a global impact. And fortunately we are. Our R&D is known, also historically. We are in an excellent position to connect with the major players from e.g. America. We have the gems in Eindhoven, Twente and Delft. The publications, the professors that come with it, the rich ecosystem of startups and Photondelta: it’s all right. Combine that with the presence of a solid high-tech industry with big parties like ASML, NXP and institutes like TNO and imec, and you know that a lot of good things await us. ”
But, as Philips also warns, we must also be prepared to look beyond the inherently important Dutch photonics industry and also adapt internationally. “Especially the Dutch-Flemish axis offers fantastic opportunities here, and imec can play a connecting role here. From Holst Center in Eindhoven, we work closely with the Dutch players. Leuven’s colleagues, on the other hand, have a strong international foothold, with complementary technology and knowledge. ” What, according to the imec top woman, helps in this connection is that the recognition has been lowered at both Dutch and European level that the government can also help financially. Imec already makes use of interreg subsidies, but the EU chip law is also full of promises in this regard. And at the national level, there is a chance that the photonics sector can use the funds that will be distributed through the National Growth Fund. In short: there is much more awareness than before that government investment is important here. ”
In a growing market, finding enough talent is always a challenge. This is no different in the photonics industry. There is no shortage of good universities, says Philips. She mentions the three Dutch technical universities, but also those in Ghent, Leuven and Brussels. “But so do you crown jewels needs: companies that appeal to the imagination in such a way that they know how to attract the best people, no matter where they come from. ” She cites EFFECT Photonics as an example that started in Eindhoven, but which in a relatively short time has grown to a scale-up with around 250 people and departments around the world. “EFFECT also shows how important upscaling is; not only for the company itself, but for our entire ecosystem. ”
That the talent manages to find EFFECT is partly due to this increasing fame. “But we are also looking for talent,” adds founder Boudewijn Docter. “It is also one of the main reasons for our recent acquisitions in the US. We see that young people know how to find their way to Eindhoven. Graduates and PhDs for example They are very important, but we have also need more experienced people, and it is often harder for them to leave home and hearth for a new job on the other side of the world. ” And yet there is a desperate need for these people. “We have also noticed it ourselves: you only learn a lot of engineering skills in practice. ‘Trial & error’ is no longer sufficient for the phase we are in now – we also need solid experience.”
That desire to gain more experience also leads to more teleworking, Docter says. “But even then, we would like people to come to Eindhoven now and then, especially if they are working on interdisciplinary projects.” The best is a mix of young and experienced, internal and remote. “With such a mix, young people can continue to grow, precisely because they can take an example from their colleagues with more experience.”
Docter is convinced that the choice to concentrate work on the places where the talent is also located ultimately also brings benefits to the Netherlands. “It is precisely by growing all over the world that we are becoming more visible as part of the national and European ecosystem. It in itself attracts new talent so that the whole industry can grow. ” And that, in turn, is favorable for the economies of scale, also desired by Kathleen Philips. “In the semiconductor industry, you always need volume,” says Docter. “Because then you really start to feel the benefits. You need to know for which markets you want to work. For example, do you choose a flexible design of your device or a very specific design? In any case, you need to be able to perform your manufacturing process, which consists of hundreds of steps, better and more stable. Each step should yield 99.9999% yield, but it takes time to get there. Not only with us, by the way, but with all the players in our sector, even the biggest boys. We have not yet built up enough experience for ‘First Time Right’, with the reliability that comes with it, but among other things due to the focus on volume, we are already well on our way to maturity. ”
Kathleen Philips is pleased that the imec can play an important role in this global development. “The Imec model, where we create R&D programs with different parties in a pre-competitive framework, is important in this respect, partly due to our emphasis on the integration of different production platforms. We are the neutral zone where you can test new ideas technically and test a prototype in the value chain with limited costs. Sometimes this leads to the creation of new start-ups or to collaboration with existing parties. But it always creates new or more robust ecosystems that the entire industry can benefit from. ”