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Berlin builds on the past to drive optics growth

25 Jul 2008

Berlin's optics and photonics industry is going from strength to strength. Tim Hayes visited Germany's capital city to find out more about the reasons that lie behind this success.

The Adlershof district of southeast Berlin is today officially called the City of Science Technology and Media, but the area has deep roots in engineering. Formerly the location of the Academy of Sciences for the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the integrated community fostered by the federal government on the Adlershof site brings together science and industry to create a centre of innovation. Several of the enterprises there stem directly from the pool of engineering and applied science expertise left in limbo when the GDR ceased to exist.

"It is incredible to see what has happened at Adlershof since the first time I came here in 1994," said Günther Tränkle of Adlershof's Ferdinand-Braun-Institute (FBH). "Adlershof is a remarkable story. Here we are not using knowledge from just the last 15 years, but rather standing on the whole history of eastern Germany."

Close co-operation
Photonics is a designated focus area for the Adlershof site where over 600 people are employed in the field, spread among an overlapping structure of companies, research institutes, and the science departments of Humboldt University. In total, optics technology at Adlershof generates around €80 m each year.

It is the ideal location for OpTecBB, one of the seven competence networks for optical technologies established in Germany by the federal government under the OptecNet Deutschland umbrella. "OpTecBB is part of the national desire to strengthen the optics industry," said executive director Bernd Weidner. "We encourage technology transfer and bring scientists and companies together. The result is new products and employment in the region."

OpTecBB has 90 members and is growing. "In particular we know that optical communication technology is strong in Berlin, along with optoelectronics and microsystems technology," said Weidner. "These are strong both in terms of industrial strength and position in the market. Thanks to the overall national strategy, our strengths here complement those of other regions like Thuringia and Bavaria."

One new focus area where Weidner believes that Berlin is very strong is in lighting. The local tradition in this technology includes the historical roots of the Osram Corporation, plus a very long-standing tradition within the Technical University of Berlin. "We have many SMEs in the region that deal with lighting and light measurement. This is an increasingly important topic, and Berlin is in a good position to bring all of the players together."

Günther Tränkle serves as chairman of OpTecBB as well as director of FBH, a major centre of optical research in its own right that develops high-power diode lasers and III-V compound semiconductors. "What is certainly available here is a strong research base," he commented. "Berlin was one of the biggest industrial centres in Germany, before history left it weakened. Today it is obvious that we have greatly recovered in terms of scientific research, with three universities and about 100 extra-university institutes. But the disadvantage here is that the number of industrial partners you can find is still quite small compared to the number available elsewhere."

Tränkle agrees that Adlershof's strengths complement those of other German optics centres, such as Jena's expertise in classical optics. Adlershof hosts one result of the long-term co-operation between FBH and Jenoptik in the form of Jenoptik Diode Lab, developing high-power laser sources derived from FBH research for materials processing. eagleyard is another example of FBH success, being a spin-off created to meet demand for diode lasers developed at the Institute (see box).

Start-ups and students
The Adlershof environment is particularly fertile for start-ups. "There's nothing else in Berlin like this park," noted Uwe Ortmann, head of sales and marketing at Picoquant. "Other cities have business parks for sure, but they tend not to be so structured or with the resources that we have here." Growth for Picoquant's picosecond pulsed diode lasers, photon-counting instrumentation and fluorescence lifetime systems has led it to expand its facilities, something it easily accomplished at Adlershof where space is readily obtained. "Previously we were in an incubator centre elsewhere on the site, but we have been able to take the top floor of our current building to construct a compact and logistically sensible layout allowing our products to move around on the same floor of the building for ease of production and communication."

Start-ups operating in specialist niche areas can also be nurtured around Adlershof, and benefit from being close to OpTecBB. "Holoeye operates in a particular niche, focusing on the development of adaptive micro-optics and diffractive components for industrial applications," said Holoeye's marketing manager Klaus von G√ľnner. "Links between us and OpTecBB were important in the beginning. We were a small company without much budget for attending trade shows or promoting ourselves, so OpTecBB arranged for shared booths showcasing several companies, which were a good push for us in the beginning. These days we have more products and we need the space for ourselves. Now that we have grown, the infrastructure here still suits us with quite a few of the distributors and services we need just close by."

Larger established companies also occupy the site. Adlershof hosts an R&D centre for Adva Optical Networking, a supplier of wavelength division multiplexing material to telecoms companies and large organizations. "Berlin is certainly attractive to young skilled people," said R&D vice-president Michael Roth. "There are a number of excellent universities in the city, and there is a large optics community and a strong optics tradition here. It's an open city for international employees, with an attractive and varied labour market. We can even attract people from Munich, sometimes – the salary levels here are lower, but so is the cost of living."

The academic dimension at Adlershof is provided by the natural science faculties of the Humboldt University of Berlin, which have relocated to the site. "The decision was made to have a stronger clustering concentration on the new science park," commented Oliver Benson, speaker of the optics/photonics cluster within the physics department. "There was some concern that the number of students would go down as a result – it is some distance from the centre of the city, so students might go to the Free or Technical universities instead. But in fact student numbers are increasing."

Despite its academic position, Benson's group benefits from being part of the OpTecBB cluster. "For us it's interesting to see the opportunities available to transfer the work that we are doing into poss-ible applications, and to find partners for joint projects. It's always better to have an insight into what other people are really doing. Plus, it's very likely that when we need a special laser source or detector, there will be a company close by who is actually working on this problem."

Away from Adlershof
Other districts of Berlin host successful optics companies who have chosen their locations carefully. u2t is a spin-off from the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI), and it has chosen to remain close to the Institute. "The three founders were physicists at HHI who worked on indium phosphide technology and integrated photoreceivers, and we keep that close relationship," said Andreas Umbach, one of the co-founders. "We considered the subsidies that were available if we moved to the eastern part of Berlin, but we prefer the operational advantages that we have through being close to the HHI. And apart from HHI, the Technical University Berlin is also nearby. This area has a strong tradition of technical development, even if it is perhaps not as widely advertised or well known as Adlershof."

Not all of Berlin's optics companies would consider themselves to work in applied science. APE is closer to a pure R&D optics company, specializing in ultrafast lasers, pulse diagnostic and management equipment, wavelength conversion and acousto-optic components. It moved away from Adlershof after a period there. "APE's roots are in the former GDR, and the company started during a period of great uncertainty in Germany," said co-founder Jan Popien. "We had some experience of developing instruments and we used our connections to old and new colleagues to help us establish the company. We originally started in Adlershof and were located there for some years, but we were more technology-oriented than most of the companies there and it was not so effective for us. So we looked to move elsewhere."

The company retains contacts with Adlershof as some former colleagues are there, but operates successfully in its pure science markets without relying on the established networks centred on the Adlershof site. "We are in the ultrafast laser market, and this market is comparably small," said Popien. "Plus we are oriented towards R&D rather than industrial markets. Our own network of contacts is very strong and works well for us, but we do not rely too much on networks such as OpTecBB. We benefit from a worldwide net of distributors, which we are going to expand more and more."

Berlin expertise
Berliner Glas is well known as one of Europe's main suppliers of key optical components, assemblies and systems, based on its own large site between Adlershof and the city centre. The company's photonics division serves the semiconductor industry, biotechnology, industrial sensing and information technology with a variety of optical solutions.

"We have moved from being a glass dealer to supplying the photonics industry," said company CEO Andreas Nitze. "That means that we were manufacturing driven in the past, but over recent years we have added the capacity for development work, and brought in many resources for ideas, design and system solutions by the integration of optical components with metal parts, electronics and software. This was a major step for us."

Nitze recognizes that the strengths of optical science in Berlin are intimately tied in with his own company's global success. "We try to keep good relations with clusters and academic institutions, both to push the region forward and because we benefit from them being here. In that sense it's lucky that we have Adlershof, three universities and an active photonics cluster around us here. But we are mainly driven by technology and systems know-how. That makes it more important to be in an area where you can find the right engineers and physicists, and that is the reason that we are still here in Berlin."

• Thanks to Renate Pinzke at OpTecBB for helping to arrange the schedule for this visit.

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

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