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Hugo Thienpont on Flanders' photonics ecosystem and the role it plays in Europe’s ambitions


Astrid De Keyser, deputy director of Inward Investment Japan & South-East Asia at Flanders Investment & Trade, interviewed professor Hugo Thienpont about the role Flanders plays in the development of photonics as a key enabling technology. Discover the main insights.

Photonics as a key enabling technology

Photonics is a science and technology that makes use of the unique properties of light. In the same way, electronic circuits harness electrons, photonics uses light particles, also known as photons. Photonics is a key enabling technology that is used to make other technologies faster, better and more accessible.

Photonics is applied in diverse industries, including but not limited to:

  • Medical technology: ranging from medical scanners to wearables that monitor blood values or lab-on-chip technology, which enables faster and easier blood analysis with just a single drop of blood.
    Telecommunications: photonics is an important part of fiberoptic components, which ensure faster and more reliable data communication networks. It forms the basis for ultrafast internet, High-Definition TV and Hi-Fi streaming services.
  • Food safety: spectroscopy – a sub application of photonics – can be used to scan food items quickly and efficiently. Doing so enables the removal of dirt, rotten items or items that contain potentially harmful substances, guaranteeing food safety and quality.
  • Production: lasers and optical sensors power factories of the future and Industry 4.0. Through the application of optical sensors, production facilities can quickly and easily perform quality controls as well as predictive maintenance on their equipment and machines.
  • Waste management: spectroscopy automates the sorting of plastic waste according to its exact composition, greatly speeding up and improving the accuracy of the recycling process.
  • Mobility: lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) technology plays an important role in autonomous vehicles. It allows them to map their surroundings, allowing them to avoid cars, people and other obstacles.

The triple helix model: the key to success

Although photonics technology is used in a vast number of industrial applications, the field is often still considered purely academic. However, Flanders’ research institutes want to change that perception. That’s why they have been working together with companies and government institutions like Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship since 1997 to develop new products and applications for photonics.

There are three leading institutions in Flanders that focus on photonics:

  • B-PHOT VUB: the photonics research team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
  • NB-Photonics: this institute is a collaboration between the photonics researchers at Ghent University and imec. It brings together researchers from different fields who have expertise and skills that contribute to photonics research. So far, 7 spin-offs, including QustomDot and Sentea, have originated from the institute’s research.
  • imec: this leading research center in micro- and nanoelectronics also has a division that focuses on photonics. With a proven track record in advanced silicon photonics and R&D, imec has supported many companies by providing high-impact silicon photonics solutions.

Flanders’ photonics ecosystem is thriving, thanks to the region’s many public-private partnerships. It’s important to note that the focus isn’t just on photonics companies, but also – and even mainly – on photonics-enabled companies: organizations that don’t have expertise in photonics themselves, but that benefit from implementing photonics in their processes and technology. This ranges from major international companies like Barco, which develops laser-based projectors and display technology, to smaller innovators like 3D Systems Leuven (formerly LayerWise), which uses lasers for 3D printing using metals.

Example: Brolis Semiconductors

Lithuanian company Brolis specifically selected Flanders as the location for its R&D activities because of its long-standing collaboration with NB-Photonics. Specifically, Brolis is working on both photonics-integrated circuit technology and silicon technology. This paves the way for the development of integrated hybrid chip technology with brand-new functionalities, such as extremely small remote laser sensors, smart wearables and lab-on-chip technology.

Flanders as a key player in Europe

The triple helix approach used to support photonics in Flanders has proved quite successful: the northern region of Belgium ranks 8th in Europe when it comes to developing innovative products based on photonics. This is a strong result achieved by a comparatively small region. It has planted Flanders firmly on the European map – so firmly, in fact, that B-PHOT was charged with coordinating the ACTPHAST project.

ACTPHAST is a consortium of over 35 European photonics research institutes that aims to provide knowledge, infrastructure and support to non-photonics companies – specifically SMEs – looking to innovate by applying photonics. With 130 companies helped, 750 new jobs created, EUR 70 million in venture capital raised and EUR 550 million in new company revenues generated, it’s safe to say that ACTPHAST has so far been a resounding success.

"8th of 27, that’s how high Flanders ranks within Europe for the development of innovative photonics products"

That success has also attracted attention from outside of Europe. For example, when Japanese photonics components leader Hamamatsu Photonics was looking for a European partner, it decided on B-PHOT VUB because of its demonstrable expertise, combined with Flanders’ strategic location within Europe, which is the second largest photonics market in the world. As a result of this partnership, Hamamatsu now sponsors a photonics chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and has sent two post-doctoral researchers to join the B-PHOT VUB team. The goal is to strengthen the partnership further in the next couple of years with new spinoffs, products and hopefully even production facilities.

The key to the future: a digital innovation hub

Having laid the foundations for a strong European consortium, Flanders photonics experts want to solidify this collaboration. As the next step after ACTPHAST, B-PHOT VUB has drafted a proposal for “Photon Hub Europe”, a European digital innovation hub. The goal is to unite over 50 photonics knowledge centers in 20 European regions, including Flanders’ photonics centers B-PHOT VUB, NB-Photonics UGent, imec, and Flanders Make.

The hub, if approved, will provide companies with deep technological support in photonics, encompassing the technology readiness levels 3 to 8: from feasibility studies, prototyping, to upscaling, and manufacturing in Europe. It will also offer hands-on training and coordinate investment funding through cross-border support. With this ambitious initiative, Flanders’ collaborative approach is perfectly poised to serve as an example for the future of European photonics.

Find out more about how Flanders blazes the trail of R&D and innovation in Europe.

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