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Technium energizes Welsh entrepreneurs

03 Jun 2005

Photonics in North Wales is being given a new lease of life, thanks to the creation of an innovative technology centre with bold plans. Oliver Graydon decided to pay a visit.

The optoelectronics industry in Wales received a welcome boost earlier this year with the official opening of the OpTIC Technium, a £15 m (€21.8 m) technology and incubation centre in St Asaph, near the north coast. The aim of OpTIC is to act as an engine for entrepreneurship in the region that will keep optics alive and kicking in Wales.

"The idea came out of the Welsh Optoelectronics Forum, which wanted Wales to be responsible for its own sustainable growth," explained Dave Rimmer, managing director of OpTIC. "We needed to find a way to keep expertise here and allow it to flourish, rather than losing it."

First impressions suggest that OpTIC is doing just that. Since it opened for business, a dozen high-tech start-ups, developing everything from optical-fibre sensors to three-dimensional (3D) image scanners (see box below), have moved in. An undeniable buzz of innovation surrounds you as you walk through the front door.

OpTIC is effectively divided into three parts: an incubation centre with 24 incubation units each offering 50 m2 of space; a business support centre; and a technology centre with 2000 m2 of laboratory space. The project has been supported by funds from the European Union, the Welsh Development Agency and private industry. There is also a plan to establish a technology park in the area around OpTIC, so that start-ups can move into premises there when they need more space.

The beautiful hills of the Welsh countryside may seem like a remote and odd setting for such a high-tech venture, and its state-of-the-art solar-panelled exterior does look slightly out of place. However, the choice of location is understandable when one considers that the region is home to many well-known names in the industry, such as Thales Optics, Phoenix Glass, Pilkington Special Glass and Tyco Electronics. The University of Bangor, with its Centre for Industrial and Commercial Optoelectronics, is just a short drive away. "There's a rich history of optics here," said Rimmer. "The world's first commercial clad-silica fibre was drawn less than half a mile away from here by Pilkington."

According to Rimmer, OpTIC is different from other incubation facilities, such as those found on universities and science parks, for several reasons. First, as its name implies, it is primarily dedicated to optics and optoelectronics. Second, its technology and business support centres provide valuable extra support for start-ups. Rimmer says this is a unique benefit that allows fledgling ventures to gain access to a specialized piece of metrology equipment or business advice from experienced industry veterans, for example. It is also run on strictly commercial lines, to ensure a self-sustainabe future.

The business support centre helps start-ups by providing ongoing guidance and advice on issues such as writing business plans and raising funding, filing and protecting intellectual property, and marketing and recruitment.

On the technology side, OpTIC is in the process of setting up a metrology laboratory and four centres of expertise in:
• modern optics
• ultra-precision surfaces (UPS)
• optical polymers and analytical services
• metal organic chemical vapour deposition (MOCVD) fabrication.

The Centre for Modern Optics specializes in holography, 3D imaging, interferometry and lithography. It has moved to OpTIC from its former location at De Montfort University in Leicester and boasts five optics labs equipped with lasers, and three dark rooms. Its current services include state-of-the-art colour holography, the study of new recording materials, nanolithography and vibration measurements by holographic interferometry.

The UPS Centre is also located at OpTIC. It has been given a £4.2 m grant by the UK Research Council to develop the capability to fabricate the super-smooth mirror segments that will be required by future generations of extra-large telescopes. Such telescopes are expected to need primary mirrors as large as 30-100 m, with a surface-form error of less than 25 nm.

The centre is being equipped with three polishing and shaping machines that will allow the fabrication of optics up to 1 m in diameter, and of the required smoothness and accuracy. The machines are: a free-form CNC grinding machine being built by Cranfield University; a Zeeko hybrid polishing machine; and a reactive atomic plasma machine. The UPS Centre is a partnership between University College London, Cranfield University, Zeeko and OpTIC.

The plan regarding optical polymers and analytical services is to develop the facilities to produce a wide range of optical-grade polymers for use in lenses, photoactive materials and novel substrates. The laboratory will also be equipped with a suite of analytical equipment for performing spectrometry, chromatography and thermomechanical testing of samples. Much of the equipment at the time OLE visited in April was on order.

OpTIC is also in the process of installing a MOCVD reactor for growing specialized nitride and oxide materials and devices, such as high-brightness GaN LEDs. It plans to carry out studies on improving the yield of GaN wafer production. The reactor will be up and running later this year.

In addition to these centres of expertise, OpTIC is busy preparing a metrology laboratory that will contain a wealth of equipment for characterizing optical samples. When OLE visited, the lab had just installed a Nikon Nexiv 3D laser-profiler for highly accurate shape measurements, video microscopy equipment and an interferometer for checking the flatness of optics.

As well as making all of this equipment available to start-ups at OpTIC, the idea is to use it to generate revenue by performing contract research for third parties. "The metrology lab is expected to be up and running by the end of June," said sales manager Peter Williams. "We are also planning to run training courses on metrology topics such as microscopy from July."

OpTIC also has a conference room capable of holding 120 people, which means that it is capable of hosting events and industrial seminars, providing yet another option for revenue generation. Within a few years it is hoped that OpTIC will be self-financing, thanks to money from these activities and the rent from start-ups.

Given the number of ideas and enthusiasm at OpTIC, it's easy to imagine that it will be successful. As OLE was going to press, another new venture, Optical Integration Limited, was about to move in and start unpacking - surely an encouraging sign for the future.

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