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Industry associations create stability during downturns

23 Apr 2009

When it comes to surviving an economic downturn, industry associations offer strength in numbers. Tom Pearsall tells OLE how members of the European Photonics Industry Consortium are bearing up.

Tom Pearsall is the general secretary of the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC). As an industry association, EPIC works to build a more competitive photonics sector across Europe, capable of both economic and technological growth worldwide. EPIC also works with the European Commission to translate industry needs into research and development programmes. In times of financial crisis, Pearsall believes that industry associations such as EPIC have a key role to play in identifying new market opportunities and in helping their members to work together to capture the opportunity.

How important are industry associations during tough times?
The European photonics industry is made up of a broad community of highly innovative small companies that are not very well connected to each other. When economic pressures create turbulent markets and make planning difficult, an association can help companies to create partnerships and find a better way through the crisis.

EPIC was created during the telecoms boom-bust and our initial objective was to encourage our members to diversify the market focus of their technologies. The financial crisis that we are facing today is very different. The telecoms crash was focused on one industry sector but today nearly all of the markets have been affected. Our goal now is to help our members to find new sources of revenue.

How is EPIC helping its members to find new revenue streams?
One way is to help our members to find new customers. Another is to encourage them to participate in European projects in order to build a longer term base in their revenue streams. In terms of new customers, one way we do this is by leading trade missions to areas where there might be interesting commercial, scientific and technological exchanges, such as the Arab/Gulf countries.

EPIC also offers services that meet the needs of individual members, such as strategic planning. We do a lot of work to get information to our members about where markets are developing. We work closely with the International Optoelectronics Association (IOA) in order to understand where opportunities are emerging and how the focus of the market is changing in the current economic situation.

What is the relationship between EPIC and the IOA?
The IOA is a coalition of optoelectronics associations. Four industry associations across Europe participate: EPIC, the Scottish Optoelectronics Association, OpTech-Net of Germany and Swisslaser Net. The other members of the IOA are the Australian Industry Group, HKOEA in Hong Kong, KAPID in Korea, the OIDA in the US, the OITDA in Japan, PAS in Singapore and PIDA in Taiwan. Through our IOA colleagues we can help our members to establish contacts and discuss projects involving photonics resources all across the globe.

What new markets are emerging?
Photonics in Europe is experiencing a boom in photovoltaic energy generation. In 2008 this market grew worldwide to $37 bn (€27.5 bn), with nearly half of the growth occurring in Spain alone.

Has EPIC been able to mirror ideas from other IOA members?
A good example is the ACCORD project. Through ACCORD, EPIC is working with universities and SMEs to train students on components and technologies that represent new directions in the photonics market. ACCORD acts as a broker between photonics companies and universities.

This kind of programme was first put together by the OITDA. The OIDA then developed the Photonics Technology Access Programme (PTAP), benefiting from the OITDA experience. During our regular IOA meetings, we discussed how this idea could be transformed into a project that could be supported by the European Commission. This took several years of work and the result is the ACCORD programme.

We team a company with a university and they work together on a project. The European Commission provides the money that allows us to buy the components and transfer them to the university.

Companies also get a chance to look at a student who they might want to hire. This is particularly attractive to SMEs that don't have recruitment programmes or additional funds to spend on R&D. The company and university can be located anywhere in Europe. One successful partnership teams an SME in the UK with a university in Spain, and is contributing to greater mobility for photonics engineers in Europe, in addition to the technology results that are flowing from the project.

The ACCORD project will run a workshop at the World of Photonics congress in Munich (15–18 June). This would be an excellent opportunity to see the range of the projects that are running under the ACCORD banner, and to meet with both company and university participants.

We are now working with the OIDA to see if we can get both programmes (ACCORD and PTAP) funded on a sustained basis, perhaps by approaching individual nation states and asking them to buy in to the idea. If every country in the EU committed £10 000 a year, we could run a basic programme. If they commited €20 000 each we could run a tremendous programme. It's not a huge amount of money and it stimulates professional employment, provides important cash flow for SMEs, and creates valuable feedback on device and system performance at the beta production stage.

For more information, visit www.epic-assoc.com, www.ioassociation.org/index.html and www.ist-accord.org.

• This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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