Photonics at the Knowledge Transfer Network 2

Posted 27/5/2020 by Benet Hanley

Continuing our interview with Matthew Wasley – Knowledge Transfer Manager for Photonics at the Knowledge Transfer Network.

Ben: In part-one of our interview, you mentioned the time that it takes for Photonic companies to hit peak production, 15 years feels like quite a long time to get to that peak production point. Are you seeing or anticipating any changes in that or any initiatives that can help companies in that situation?

Matt: Yeah. Generally we're in a reasonably good position in the UK, with the amount of funds but not necessarily specific to Photonics. We see things like the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, for example, where Photonic fits into large parts of that, in supporting communications and mobility and health and things like that. So Photonics has a place there.

On the investment side, there are Photonics Companies that have been successful in a lot of the different instruments that are used for innovation.

For example, the innovation loans. If you can get a loan from a high street bank, then you probably should, because there's lots of competition, that's fine. But you get to a point where you are trying to fund later stage R&D and innovation loans are really good in that space. There are a few Photonics Companies, UnikLasers, springs to mind as one of the recipients of an innovation loan.  

It's an interesting question actually, because, I've done some work on it with a European project that was looking at investors that would invest in Photonic companies. I think it would be quite surprising and certainly rare to find an investment company website where it said, we invest in Photonics companies. As a proxy actually we use “technology hardware”. So an investment group might perhaps just focus on software or on health or whatever, but companies, investment groups, Angel syndicates or VCs that are interested in technology hardware, certainly can invest in Photonics. 

There's a number of factors in play. Ultimately, the things that would apply for Photonics companies apply for all kinds of other companies:needing to have a good team and the right business model hone in on the right market for the product.

You see quite classically, a newish company will start looking at lots of different kinds of markets and then you go and see them a few years later and they're  focused on one and then you might go and see them a few years after that and they're focused on a tiny niche of one.

I think it's encouraging that there is a reasonable amount of investment in innovative technology because Photonics certainly covers a wide cross section of innovative technology.

So communicating things both ways. To the organisations that are making investments to help them understand that Photonics is a good technology and it's got a future.

To the Photonic companies, okay, you understand this particular instrument or this scheme but are you aware that this is a connection that you could have or that you could take advantage there? It's not my area of expertise, but highlighting things like R&D tax credits and patent box and things like that, making companies aware of the wide range of supports. This goes for all kinds of innovative companies as well as for Photonics.

Ben: Excellent. One of the things that you're talking about there is quite a complex set of dependencies that Photonics companies have to put into. How does Photonics then fit in with the UK Industrial Strategy?

Matt: It's interesting because it's an enabling technology essentially. So it's everywhere and in some senses nowhere, in that you would go through the UK Industrial Strategy. I mean, I haven't searched for it, but I'd be surprised if you'd see Photonics there, but it is everywhere.

Right now they're digging up the street outside my house to put fibre to the premises, in there. So, the communication backbone of the country is underpinned by fibre including, mobile phones. I forget, if you've got an iPhone 10 how many different Photonic processes and components will be in that. Just on the consumer side, there's Photonics used to know if you've got the phone next to your head, there's Photonics used to recognise your face.

So we can see that Photonics really underpins certain modern and emerging technologies.

Things like optical computing is starting to become more feasible now that the technology is catching up with the premise. In health, we have Photonics in diagnosis in imaging techniques and monitoring and light therapy as well. Photonics in the use of lasers in manufacture, leading to greater utility. In the future of mobility, I think it's inevitable that autonomous vehicles will have Photonics as part of their eyes and ears to see the road. Potentially as part of a suite of sensors, but certainly Lidar, not just in autonomous vehicles, but in other applications.

Lidar is a real area forecast for growth. The UK has the capability here to help, currently lots of the commercial Lidar sensors are big and bulky and we've got crucial parts of the supply chain here to have the opportunity, to have a really good foothold in vehicle Lidar.

Photonics is across the UK Industrial Strategy, and it features in European industrial strategies as well. In Horizon 2020, and previous calls, and it will be again in Horizon Europe, there's always been Photonic calls from that. Photonics Companies have found themselves able to be part of projects outside of core Photonics. For example, in security and other areas so I think Photonics is absolutely embedded in the Industrial Strategy even if it's not named in it.

Ben: It's such an exciting environment and there's so many different elements. I loved that you were talking about Lidar there. We're certainly seeing some of our clients are actively involved in pursuing that. So what do you think are the challenges for the Photonic sector? What do they do next?

Matt: So “people” as always remains a challenge. We hear this at different levels. Getting provision of physics graduates for example but actually it goes back to even getting people in universities doing the basic things. There's a debate about, to what extent Photonics needs to be seen as a career choice at university. Some would say it’s very important for the industry others would say we can train them in Photonics if we've got good graduates coming out of the universities. At the technician level as well, it's really important to get people that can work in those kinds of roles.

One of the points that's often made is currently Photonics is a very male environment. There's all kinds of data about the male/female ratio in companies and certainly at the top level in companies and as somebody said to me recently, we are missing out on 50% of the workforce then, that's a challenge. Photonics is by no means unique in this, I suppose part of it stems from historical social perceptions but this has and is changing and lots of work has been done on attracting more girls into physics.

This is a test for Photonics that companies can do something about, but basically to ensure that it's a diverse environment and across all groups. I think it's really important to keep fighting the battle to have Photonics as a word that people understand or at least have heard of and communicating the value of the company when getting investment.

So, one of the unique challenges for Photonics is in the name. You could stop someone in the street and ask them what virtual reality was and they probably have some idea whereas Photonics, not so much. In fact, somebody, I met recently suggested to actually drop Photonics and just go back to optics. So instead of saying Photonics say optics for Fintech or optics for banking etc.

Ben: That's an interesting thought. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I see that raising Photonics visibility is important to help it attract public and government recognition, investment and the people required for the industry. I would love to see the Photonics industry in the UK do more to promote itself to the general public. I think that's been really useful. Matthew, I really enjoyed some of your thoughts and ideas.

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