BIOPHOTONICS/GLOBAL COMPETITIVENESS: National, multinational efforts target biophotonics leadership

July 17, 2013
Although the United States currently leads the world in biophotonics, other nations are making significant investments -- and as a result, the country has lost substantial global market share and thousands of jobs in this arena.

Although the United States currently leads the world in biophotonics, other nations are making significant investments—and as a result, the country has lost substantial global market share and thousands of jobs in this arena. So said Stephen Laderman, chair of the Health & Medicine Working Group of the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), in a recent webcast that put forth NPI's recommendations for the coming years. NPI is a group that represents industry, academe, and government, and aims to raise awareness of photonics; Health & Medicine is one of its five working groups.

Laderman prefaced his group's recommendations with a quick review of the substantial contributions photonics has made—and continues to make—to biomedical research and cost-effective health care. These impacts are enabled by the technologies' inherent strengths in terms of sensitivity, speed, precision, and accuracy. And, he said, the field of biophotonics has proven its ability to leverage investment for substantial payoff.

To maintain its lead in biophotonics, said Laderman (who is also director of Agilent Technologies' Molecular Tools Laboratory), the United States must:

1. Support photonics research by keeping in mind the fact that it has already enabled some of the most exciting biomedical discoveries achieved to date, and has much more to offer;

2. Invest in the development of a shared database (and standards for its use) to facilitate photonics-based biomedical research;

3. Prioritize the development of imaging standards and software methods toward a goal of quantitative (rather than qualitative or semi-quantitative) analysis;

4. Fund development of affordable point-of-care diagnostic devices that meet real needs and will be embraced by medical practitioners; and

5. Support multidisciplinary efforts.

A complete list of recommendations, and the Health & Medicine whitepaper, is available at the NPI website:

Establishing the NPI was a key recommendation included in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) 2012 report, Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for our Nation. The initiative is spearheaded by the leading photonics societies: The American Physical Society (APS), IEEE Photonics Society, Laser Institute of America (LIA), the Optical Society (OSA), and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. According to Thomas Baer, who chairs the NPI advisory committee and led the webcast, the group aims to "provide an opportunity to create the infrastructure for ongoing industry road mapping, economic impact analysis, and improved interface between industry, academia, and government funding agencies." Incidentally, Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center, is himself a pioneer in biophotonics.

But before the webcast, and before NPI's official launch in late May 2013, the U.S. National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) in early May 2013 established a 120-day Fast-Track Action Committee on Optics and Photonics (FTAC-OP)—whose list of goals includes development of a prioritized list of optics and photonics research opportunities of national interest. The committee includes representatives from the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, and Energy; the National Science Foundation (NSF); and the White House Offices of Management and Budget and Science and Technology, among other agencies.

FTAC-OP will use the findings in NAS's 2012 report to identify high-interest research areas, opportunities for collaboration, and mechanisms for interagency coordination, as well as make prioritized research and research organization recommendations to the NSTC Committee on Science Physical Sciences Subcommittee. According to their charter, specific goals of the FTAC-OP will be to 1) identify cross-cutting areas of optics and photonics research that, with interagency cooperation, could benefit the U.S. based on challenges and recommendations described in the 2012 NAS report; 2) prioritize these research areas for possible federal investment; and 3) as appropriate, set long-term, outcome-oriented goals for federal optics and photonics research.

Driving photonics in Europe

These efforts parallel work being done in Europe. For instance, during the Photonics21 Annual Meeting (March 27-28, 2013, Brussels, Belgium), the European photonics community presented to European Commission VP Neelie Kroes the Photonics Multiannual Strategic Roadmap Towards 2020 - Photonics Driving Economic Growth in Europe. Developed by the European photonics community, the roadmap outlines research and innovation priorities for 2014-2020 in Life Science & Health, among six other work groups. The report states that biophotonics research and innovation can make a major contribution to society through development of easy-to-access, minimally invasive, low-cost screening methods, as well as preventive tools. The work group identified five specific areas with pressing, unmet needs that biophotonics could likely fulfill: Preclinical research, infectious disease, ophthalmology, neuro-monitoring and imaging, environmental monitoring, and food and drug safety. The full report is downloadable from the Photonics21 site; Life Science & Health is covered on pages 41-48:

Photonics21, the European technology platform for photonics, also agreed to create a new entity—the Photonics PPP Association—as the legal vehicle needed to sign a contract with the EC. The Photonics21 community pledged to spend 5.6 billion euros on a public-private partnership (PPP), provided that the EC commits 1.4 billion euros.

Then in May 2013, the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) announced a partnership with Laser Classroom (Minneapolis, MN) to distribute educational outreach kits called "Light, Lasers and Optics" to students throughout Europe. The program encompasses life science, though it does not single out such applications; the allies have a goal to develop a "future generation of engineers, so that companies have access to skilled staff and remain creative and competitive," according to Laser Classroom founder Colette DeHarpporte. The kits are sponsored by companies; research organizations and photonics clusters work with EPIC to translate them into various languages and identify motivated teachers. The teachers agree to actively use the kits and to annually report specific outcomes to EPIC. The partners aim for long-term tracking of the impact: The ultimate goal is to foster excitement about science and technology in general, and photonics in particular. For more information, see

Also recently, EPIC president Drew Nelson was appointed technology representative for the Photonics committee of the European Commission's Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) High Level Commission expert group, which aims to boost European production of KETs-based products. Health is among the world-leading industries that depend on KETs, the global market for which is forecast to grow to over $1.31 trillion in 2015 (from ~$851 billion in 2008). The expert group aims to help Europe keep pace with main international competitors, restore growth, create jobs, and address major societal challenges.

...and specifically, in Germany

Meanwhile, German industry associations Spectaris, VDMA (German Engineering Federation), and ZVEI (German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers' Association), together with BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research), have issued an industry analysis (Photonik Branchenreport, or Photonics Industry Report, 2013) that demonstrates strong growth since 2005, despite the world financial crisis. According to the study, the global photonics market reached 350 billion euros in 2011, which corresponds to an average yearly growth rate of 6.5 percent in real terms. This means that photonics grew twice as fast as world GDP. With a total share of 8 percent of the global market, Germany's photonics industry maintained the market position it has held since 2005; in Medical Technology & Life Sciences and other key segments, Germany's market share increased up to 10 to 16 percent, significantly outperforming the industry average.

The report states that since 2005, North America and Japan have lost market share, and that Europe, with its market share of 18 percent, was able to defend its global position ahead of North America's 12 percent share. In the Medical Technology & Life Sciences segment of the photonics market, Europe's share is 30 percent, of which Germany's contribution is 55 percent.

About the Author

Barbara Gefvert | Editor-in-Chief, BioOptics World (2008-2020)

Barbara G. Gefvert has been a science and technology editor and writer since 1987, and served as editor in chief on multiple publications, including Sensors magazine for nearly a decade.

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