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Collaborative R&D programmes establish European dominance

04 Apr 2008

Funding from the European Commission and UK Technology Strategy Board is helping to bring the industrial and scientific communities together through collaborative R&D projects. OLE speaks to Fianium's R&D manager John Clowes about the effects that these initiatives have on SMEs within the photonics sector.

Growing a high-tech company is often driven by venture capital (VC) investment but this approach does not always develop the necessary partnerships between industry and the scientific community. R&D funding initiatives such as the European Framework programme provide a mechanism for industry and scientific communities to work together and form partnerships that would otherwise not be possible.

Over the past four years, Fianium has established a strong presence in the market for ultrafast fibre laser technology without any VC investment. That said, funding from European Framework and UK collaborative R&D programmes has been key to enabling both technology development and company growth.

What collaborative R&D projects has Fianium been involved in?
Back in 2004/05, we ran our first government-funded project (then supported by the UK Department of Trade and Industry) developing 780 nm femtosecond fibre lasers. While the project was technically successful, we worked alone, without end-user partners, and the impact was fairly low.

Since 2004, Fianium has been involved in several collaborative projects, most notably URANUS, under the EU 6th Framework programme and as project leader within ULTRAFAST, under the 2005 UK Technology Strategy Board "Next-generation lasers" call. In both of these projects, we have been fortunate to work with partners who are experts in their field.

How easy is it to win funding?
Most programmes are highly competitive and Fianium has been very fortunate. A large percentage of the EU and national government funding is targeted at photonics and particularly laser and lighting-related activities. Fibre lasers are undoubtedly a hot topic just now and the efficiency and reliability of the technology also meets the additional requirements related to sustainability and environmental matters.

We have been particularly fortunate in the UK. Programmes such as "Advanced lighting, lasers and displays" have been prioritized and fibre lasers, in particular ultrafast fibre lasers, are ideally suited. Our background and technology allows us to attract the right partners and, provided that we have a strong consortium and focussed objectives, the chances of success are high.

How has Fianium benefited from these programmes?
Since mid-2004, our revenue has doubled on an annual basis, and this looks set to continue for 2007/08. However, without the fall back of external investors or the sales visibility of large, established companies, recruitment of skilled employees to enable growth and technology development is always extremely risky. The revenue provided through R&D funding initiatives has allowed us to recruit, with confidence, excellent engineers, scientists and technicians, and it is the formation of such a high-quality team that has enabled our company to grow so quickly.

Probably the most important aspect of collaborative R&D projects has been the opportunity to work with research partners such as the Optoelectronics Research Centre at Tampere University of Technology in Finland and the Centre for Photonics and Photonic Materials (CPPM) at the University of Bath, UK. These institutes are world leaders in SESAMs and PCFs respectively, which have perfect synergy with ultrafast fibre lasers. Participating in collaborative programmes has allowed us to form strong working and business relationships, which we hope will be mutually beneficial for many years to come.

How much funding do you receive from collaborative programmes?
Our belief is that we gain more from the relationships developed under these programmes than from the monetary investment – although cash is clearly important.

It is crucial to develop relationships with key scientific research institutions that have the expertise, resources and facilities to develop hardware such as PCFs and SESAMs. Funding of such technology development in the commercial sector is prohibitively expensive and there are additional IP-related issues. Furthermore, the key technology innovators are very often based in academia rather than industry, and this is certainly true from our experience.

The downside of the industry–academia relationship is the effect on funding. Most applied R&D programmes are funded to a level of 50%, but their status means that universities require 100% funding. The end result is that the industry share of the funding can fall to as low as 25% (requiring 75% industry-matched funding) if the university investment is substantial. However, in many ways, this has a positive effect in that we are forced to be focused and only carry out projects that have a clear technical goal with achievable near-term commercial benefits.

Will Fianium continue to be involved in collaborative projects?
Absolutely. We are just starting a new three-year 7th Framework programme where ultrafast fibre lasers are being developed for neurological imaging. We also have a large project submitted to the latest "Advanced lighting, lasers and displays" call, where, if successful, we will once again team up with the CPPM at Bath. The proposed project has challenging objectives that will push supercontinuum fibre laser technology far beyond the present state of art. As with all of our projects, a successful realization of the project objectives will result in massive commercial benefits within the European community and further establish European dominance in advanced laser technology.

• This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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