Photonics in Berlin—Small is beautiful!

Oct. 13, 2017
Photonics is indeed a small business. Which is nothing to worry about.
Danke 720

Image. After investing about 1.4 billion euro of tax payers money Berlin Adlershof has turned into Germany’s biggest technology park, creating several billion euros in revenue each year. (Courtesy of WISTA-Management GmbH)

Next week we will have a photonics week here in Berlin. The local photonics community will convene in 8 workshops plus a small exhibition. It will attract a few hundred people. Not much for a big city such as Berlin one might think. Is that typical for photonics?

A hundred years ago Berlin was home to industry giants such as Siemens or AEG, the German GE. The town was called Elektropolis to reflect its role in innovation. That was long ago, all those big players left the town or dissolved into many smaller parts. Today the historical sites give home to a lively mix of research institutions and innovative companies.

And research is very strong in Berlin: Three big universities with about 100,000 students plus several small universities plus about a dozen separate photonics related research institutions form a hospitable environment for innovation.

Still, it took decades to nurture a lively community of small and medium enterprises out of this brain pool. Today, OptecBB, the local network for photonics companies, counts 115 members. Most are small and medium sized companies, and none has a Berlin base beyond a thousand employees.

But that is where innovation comes from

If we look around, we find a number of such photonics hubs. For example, Rochester or Tucson in America; Jena, Aachen, or Munich in Germany; and Paris or Bordeaux (to name but a few) are home to a lively photonics community. The people there spark global innovation on ground breaking fields such as telecommunication, mobility, or future computing technology.

In Berlin there are a lot of hidden champions. Take u2t, a spin-off from local Heinrich Hertz Institute. When Finisar bought the company in 2014 it was the technology leader for 100G optical communication technology. Their indium phosphide technology led to the fasted photodetectors and were a pre-requisite for 400G technology. Or First Sensor: This 800-person company supplies lidar champion Velodyne with the core component in their system, the avalanche photodiode.

Larger companies watch the process and buy in or create subsidiaries in the environment of particularly innovative institutes, such as Trumpf and Jenoptik, which both started laser diode firms in walking distance to the Ferdinand Braun Institute in Adlershof.

What can we learn from that? Photonics is indeed a small business. Which is nothing to worry about. Its size seems closely connected to its innovative spirit. It grows in the vicinity of research institutions. As an example, after 20 years of re-development, Berlin Adlershof provides work to 10,000 people. A dozen research institutions plus almost a thousand companies have settled here. Now it is Germany’s biggest technology park with photonics as a core technology.

The photonics week

If people gather here in Adlershof next week, they go for a program that is closely oriented to the needs of that community. One can learn from serial founders how to create a startup or to address international business opportunities. Or one may visit a number of topical meetings from laser material processing to quantum sensors. And yes, there is lidar, too (Workshop on intelligent sensor systems – autonomous vehicles and networked production).

And the community is well connected: The local German community already advertises for the Arizona Photonics Days, presented by Optics Valley and the UA Tech Parks AZ, coming next January 25-26, in Tucson, AZ.

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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