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ACTMOST: Europe's catalyst for optics innovation

24 Nov 2010

Hugo Thienpont explains how a new project will offer a risk-free micro-optics service to the commercial sector in Europe.

From January 2011, SMEs and larger companies alike will be able to collaborate with Europe’s top experts in the field of micro-optics in a cost-effective and timely manner - thanks to an innovative new project called ACTMOST (Access to Micro-Optics Expertise, Services and Technologies).

The basic idea is simple: companies can approach the ACTMOST consortium with a problem, speak to a participating expert at one of 14 institutions across six European countries, and then work together towards a definitive solution within six months.

The innovative part is that, thanks to a new subsidy model being trialed by ACTMOST on behalf of the European Commission, the first € 60,000 towards the cost of the proof-of-concept studies is already covered. So instead of accessing money via Europe, ACTMOST participants will access a service. Ahead of the project's first workshop for industry, coming up in December, Jacqueline Hewett (JH) spoke with the ACTMOST co-ordinator Hugo Thienpont (HT) about the radical approach:

JH: What was your motivation for setting up the ACTMOST project?
HT: The European Commission (EC) does a good job of funding fundamental, applied and industrial research, but the typical timescale for the innovation to be exploited is five years. While this timescale may be appropriate for larger companies, there are a substantial number of SMEs out there who want to innovate with optics and photonics but cannot commit to these timescales.

We always hear it said that photonics is a key enabling technology and yet many companies still experience innovation barriers. It could be that the company doesn’t have the necessary in-house expertise, can’t sustain an in-house photonics R&D team, or perhaps has limited or no access to cutting-edge technologies.

When it comes to micro-optics and micro-photonic systems, there is no way to standardize the fabrication procedure -- everything has to be developed in a dedicated and customized way. So, before companies take up optics and photonics to innovate their products, they either have to look for multiple suppliers or sub-contract feasible studies, which can be both expensive and a shot-in-the-dark.

We hope that start-ups, spin-outs and SMEs will benefit from ACTMOST. We are targeting SMEs whose core business is optics and also those SMEs who are not so familiar with optics and photonics. It could be that they know optics might provide a solution, but do not know how to innovate with optical technologies. If we can make sure that, in Europe, all our great inventors and entrepreneurs get the chance to do their business faster and innovate better, we really have something going.

JH: How did you get the ACTMOST project up and running and what are its goals?
It has taken us seven years to get to the point where we have brought all of Europe’s top experts in the field of micro-optics together. We started with the Network of Excellence in Micro-Optics (NEMO), an EC-funded project, with 30 partners. As part of NEMO, we tested our skills on between 40 and 50 small projects, some of them with companies to see if we could support the needs of industry.

After five years, the feedback from companies was very positive. They came to us with a challenge, we told them immediately if we could handle it or how to overcome the hurdle and what direction to take. After three months of support, the companies overcame the innovation barrier and then they took us up on a substantially bigger follow-up project which they then financially sponsored. That was essentially the beginning of ACTMOST.

ACTMOST has 14 partners in six European countries who will continue to work in this manner. The idea is to help companies to overcome innovation barriers quickly, at limited cost and risk free and use optics and photonics in their new products. We want to see companies grow their business and create jobs and economic wealth.

JH: What timescales is ACTMOST looking to work on?
If this model works, and I think it will, then we have found a new way to serve SMEs and companies on a short time scale and in such a way that they are not committed immediately for two, three or four years. In the past, companies may have stepped into a big European project and after six months the project becomes a burden because the company has changed strategy and it is no longer a priority for them.

ACTMOST talks about timescales for coming up with solutions of 2-4 months, then a further two months to demonstrate a proof-of-principle prototype. The goal is that after six months the SME has a solution on which they can build further. ACTMOST is the catalyst for innovation.

JH: How does ACTMOST’s subsidy funding model work?
The EC has given ACTMOST a specific amount of funding. But ACTMOST will not redistribute that funding to the companies as an intermediary would do. We pay ourselves in order to support companies. The companies don’t get money, they get services.

If you are an SME, you probably don’t have a lot of money and you have to focus on productivity to survive, especially in these uncertain economic times. We determine what the cost will be to make sure that you have your first proof-of-concept demonstrator within 3-6 months. If you are an SME, ACTMOST waives the cost of that support up to EURO 60,000. In return, we ask for absolute commitment. We also support large-scale companies, but on a 50% basis, so the company matches the contribution made by ACTMOST.

JH: How will collaborations work in practice?
Companies come to us with a challenge, which we call a “user project”. If we can, we will offer a solution and partner with them for a 3-6 months term to perform feasibility studies, showing clearly any potential solution. From here the company can go on its own, or team up with the ACTMOST partners on a bilateral agreement (outside the scope of the EC project) so that it can make a product as quickly as possible.

The first thing we offer is a rapid response from an expert. We have a single central contact point. The SME can call or e-mail us and we will talk over the phone without breaching confidentially. As soon as we know further details, a co-ordinator brings together a team of experts from the different partners and talks to the company about the problem and challenges and we discuss up to the level where we find a good solution for the company.

JH: What services are available?
ACTMOST covers the complete technology supply chain from design, prototyping and characterisation right through to packaging, reliability and proof-of-concept demonstrators based on micro-optics technologies. This includes micro lenses, diffractive optics, aspheres, free-form optics, replication technology, microstructured fibres, Bragg gratings, lab-on-a-chip, MOEMS, etc. With 14 top-level research centres, we have a lot of technologies at hand and a huge amount of expertise. All of the ACTMOST experts know each other well and their equipment is tuned and matched to each other.

ACTMOST also provides training. Our experts will train individuals from industry on top-level equipment so that they can gain hands-on experience and take that knowledge back into their company. The personalized training is offered completely free of charge.

JH: How can I find out more?
We are holding our first workshop in Brussels, Belgium, on 3rd December 2010. It is free to attend and we will be explaining the support model to the attendees in terms of the expertise that is available. We will be running many more workshops all over Europe as time progresses. We also encourage all interested parties to visit the ACTMOST website. Our target is to start with support projects in January 2011.

JH: What’s the catch?!
It does looks too good to be true, but there is no catch and no hidden agenda. We urge companies to get involved as this is a great opportunity. We hope to serve 30 to 50 companies in this initial trial. ACTMOST partners will get exposed to SMEs whose core business is not optics and photonics and this is a huge market for research institutes. It is a way to bring us together and stimulate collaboration. We are looking to the challenges that companies are facing. This, for us, is as exciting as fundamental research. We want to help companies with real challenges and create real opportunities.

About the Author

Jacqueline Hewett is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Bristol, UK.

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