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The Netherlands offers focal point for photonics

11 Nov 2008

Sitting at the heart of Europe, the Netherlands is a photonics hub. Marie Freebody speaks to people who live and work in the country to uncover the reasons behind this success.

The Netherlands has a long history as a key trading centre in Europe thanks to its strategic central location and excellent infrastructure. The Port of Rotterdam is Europe's largest seaport, while Schipol Airport in Amsterdam is recognized as one of the major hubs in Europe.

The photonics industry employs around 250,000 people across Europe, of which approximately 10% are in the Netherlands. Dutch annual revenue totals around €4.4 bn, which is 10% of the European production volume and 2% of the world market. Most of this production volume is due to Dutch giants such as ASML and Philips, together with an emerging generation of smaller high-tech companies and spin-offs. The Netherlands also boasts a highly educated and multilingual workforce, which is why the country is often seen by international companies as the first logical step into Europe.

Philips generated much optics activity in the country largely thanks to its pioneering role in data storage. Today, as is the trend with much of Europe, Philips has moved more towards optical applications in medicine, such as blood analysis, spectroscopy of the skin and optical imaging.

At the heart of Europe
The Netherlands is home to many international companies such as US miniature spectrometer and optical sensor specialist, Ocean Optics. The company started its life in Florida 15 years ago and has since grown to be a multimillion dollar business employing around 300 people worldwide, including 15 workers in its support office in the Netherlands.

"The Netherlands was the natural choice for our European headquarters," Marco Snikkers, commercial director at Ocean Optics, told OLE. "The Netherlands is logical due to its central location, logistics facilities within Europe and the open and international attitude of the Dutch."

Another example of foreign interest is thin-film specialist Evatec. Founded in Switzerland, the company has sold over 1200 of its globally recognized Balzers BAK thin-film evaporator machines in the last 50 years and views the Netherlands' central location as crucial to reaching its customers in Europe.

"The Netherlands is a good base for us because the Dutch tend to speak many languages," commented Allan Jaunzens, marketing manager at Evatec. "It made sense to have a reasonable critical mass of engineers in one place where communication is good, rather than to have one engineer in each country."

The country also has a lot of home-grown talent such as spectrometer and fibre-optic producer Avantes, and the world's leading producer of lithography machines ASML. ASML, located in Veldhoven, is one of only three companies in the world that produces lithography machines and enjoys around 66% of the market share.

"We are proud to be in the Netherlands," Henk Scheepers, vice-president of ASML's supply chain, explained. "Here, we have a good supply chain and we have skilled workers who can speak many different languages and understand many different cultures. We wouldn't consider relocating for one second."

Dutch innovation and research
The Netherlands enjoys a strong reputation for R&D and innovation thanks to its many technical institutions and world-class universities such as the universities of Twente, Delft and Eindhoven.

Each university has its own niche area, which is supported by the Dutch economic affairs department. The University of Delft's Optics group works on diffractive optics for lighting and optical lithography, and metrology research for astronomical and biomedical applications. The Optical Sciences group at the University of Twente focuses on the interaction of light and matter at the nanoscale.

As well as technical universities, leading research emerges from the country's numerous research institutions, such as the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). TNO was founded in 1932 by the Dutch government in order to bridge the gap between the creation of knowledge at universities and the need for applied solution concepts in industry. Its mission is to apply scientific knowledge with the aim of strengthening the innovative power of industry and government.

"Research into optics receives quite generous funding from the Dutch government and covers both classical, fundamental and novel integrated optics," Mirvais Yousefi, lead scientist of the Integrated Optics group at TNO, told OLE. "The government invests in different projects at different universities to avoid creating competition within the Netherlands or any duplication of effort."

Investing in education
Clearly research funding in the Netherlands has the attention of the government, however, Benno Oderkerk, co-founder and technical director of Avantes, believes that it is also important to encourage investment in education.

"I think that attracting students into photonics-related degrees is a real problem that needs to be addressed," said Oderkerk. "You need to have enough active students in the field in order to support further growth and build up the intelligence database."

According to Paul Urbach, head of the optics group at the University of Delft, there are too few native students studying optics. "There are around 40–50 Masters students graduating every year in the Netherlands," said Urbach. "We have around 10 PhD students in the University of Delft's optics group and around 6–8 Masters students, however, more than half of these Masters students come from abroad."

Yousefi agrees that the country has long been struggling from a shortage of science and engineering graduates when compared with more popular studies. Although TNO is primarily a research institution, it also offers graduation opportunities in conjunction with, for example, the Delft University of Technology.

"Dutch universities and companies, including TNO, are actively recruiting abroad and there is a strong desire to internationalize the work floor to encourage the influx of foreign workers," he said. "As a result, the Netherlands today has a considerably diverse and international workforce."

Skills shortage
The lack of skilled graduates means that some companies are finding it difficult to fill their technical positions.

"All of our sales staff must have a degree in either physics or chemistry, combined with a commercial interest," commented Snikkers. "It is getting harder and harder to recruit such technical people. Job openings are advertised for at least a year and a half. If you think that you may have a role to fill in the next 18 months, then you need to think about recruiting for it now."

Jaunzens believes that technical graduates will often underestimate photonics as a field of interest and are instead drawn into IT or finance. "Although photonics is a technically challenging field, there is a lot of job satisfaction to be had," he said. "It may be difficult to find staff who can hit the ground running, but once trained they tend to enjoy it and stay in the industry."

This year, ASML needed around 100 new staff, however, it finds that its contacts with universities and status means that it has good access to the talent pool. "It is not always easy to find skilled workers, but our labour conditions are good and we have a good reputation as a high-tech company, which attracts the knowledge workers to us," said Scheepers.

Transforming research into industry
Needless to say, the Dutch government is keen to translate the country's high-calibre research into commercially viable products and has a number of projects aspiring to do just that. For example, in May 2006, the Photonics Cluster Netherlands (PCN) was created by the Dutch Photonics Society (DPS). PCN aims to raise awareness of photonics and tighten the relationship between optics companies, universities and R&D centres.

"PCN absorbed all of the members and tasks of the DPS and is the only Dutch photonics cluster organization – and we want to keep it this way," Guus Taminiau, secretary of PCN, told OLE. "As the sole organization we are able to operate more effectively within the emerging field of photonics."

Besides financial backing from the Dutch government, the PCN is supported by 33 Dutch companies. With a growing database of around 660 companies, universities, knowledge centres and engineering academies, PCN organizes photonic courses, seminars and workshops throughout the country.

"Together with Mikrocentrum at Eindhoven, we organize an annual Photonic Event to stimulate photonic research and knowledge transfer," said Taminiau. "PCN also aims to develop programmes for primary and secondary schools to get young children more interested in technology."

Another example of the government's efforts to encourage innovation is the merging electronics and micro- and nano–photonics in integrated systems (MEMPHIS) project. The MEMPHIS project, which is partly sponsored by the government, aims to develop an integrated electronic-photonic technology platform to provide a broad range of multifunction miniaturized electronic-photonic devices. Many key commercial players are represented in the project including Philips Lighting, Philips Applied Technologies, ASML and Phoenix Software, to name just a few.

Phoenix Software is a supplier of software solutions for the micro- and nano-technology industry and its chief executive officer, Twan Korthorst, believes that involvement in the MEMPHIS project boosts the company's reputation.

"This project gives us contact with photonics companies in the Netherlands and also provides support in creating new products thanks to direct feedback from the other members," Korthorst explained. "This is a big plus when you go outside of the Netherlands to sell your products as you have already tested and co-operated with photonics companies within the Netherlands. That is a great benefit for us."

Other initiatives by the government include the creation of the Innovation-Oriented Research Programme (IOP) on photonic devices. IOP photonic devices was created to strengthen co-operation between multidisciplinary groups of scientists and industry to develop a new generation of photonic devices.

As an IOP photonic devices board member, Oderkerk helps to advise the government on what the field of photonics will mean for the country in the next 10–15 years. "In particular we try to stimulate the field and make it a prime area for subsidized research," he said. "We also organize annual local photonics meetings to showcase new technologies developed by SMEs."

Industrial co-operation
While co-operation between research facilities and industry may be well-established in the country, it may come as a surprise to learn that interaction between photonics companies is not considered as strong.

"We do have a very intensive relationship with our supply base and we have regular talks with Philips Medical, FEI, Van der Lande and Thales to discuss how we can co-operate in areas where we are not competitors," commented Scheepers. "But in general, company interaction is not very intensive."

This lack of interaction between businesses may be due to the fact that the companies find themselves spread out across the country. Many have localized around the key technical institutions and universities.

One notable hub of industrial activity surrounds the University of Twente in the eastern part of the country, known as the Kennispark. This region is home to an incubator within the Business Technology Centre (BTC) and is home to start-ups such as Phoenix Software, which was formed in 2003.

"The BTC has been around for more than 25 years in co-operation with the University of Twente in the city of Enschede," explained Korthorst. "It gives new companies such as ours a great first location in which to start their business and share facilities."

According to Yousefi, the formal barriers for research spin-outs have been minimized over recent years. "TNO is actively trying to stimulate the creation of high-tech start-ups from its internal innovations for the benefit of the wider region," he said. "TNO New Ventures has been established to assist in the process of setting up a company and making it a commercial success, and today holds a portfolio of 90 companies in 11 countries."

The University of Delft also tries to help PhD students transform their research into new companies and the University of Eindhoven has close links with Philips.

Prior to working at Ocean Optics, Snikkers was involved in just such a spin-out company from the University of Delft. Together with colleagues, Snikkers commercialized a technology that enabled optical integration on semiconductor indium phosphide chips for the telecoms market.

"In 2000, we launched III-V photonics with help from VC funding and subsidiary contracts from the government," he said. "This helped us to get enough money to start up our company, which we eventually sold to a US company that still uses the technology that we developed."

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

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