For Rosa Romero, CEO and co-founder of Sphere Ultrafast Photonics, the path to success has never been a straight line. Starting her PhD in 2001, the year of the telecom bubble bust, she was forced to navigate a turbulent industry in the midst of rapid change from the start. Yet, her love and passion for photonics kept her focused on the path ahead, with the motivation to move forward.
With hindsight being 20/20, Romero recognizes that entering the field at such a tumultuous time gifted her a unique perspective, allowing her to forge her own path. Now, as the CEO and co-founder of a company on the forefront of popularizing and commercializing ultrafast laser technologies, she reflects on her experience, and considers what she and her company can do for the future of photonics.
Wading into photonics
A native of Galicia, Spain, Romero had strong aspirations from her early days, but was not clear on her direction. As a student at the University of Santiago de Compostela, she had strongly considered becoming an architect, but began to find passion in the polarization of lasers while working on her Master of Science degree. After landing on a love for lasers, Romero ultimately decided to pursue her PhD in photonics engineering, but by her own account, at the time, she felt there was a limited photonics industry in Galicia. So, she pivoted, attending the University of Porto in Portugal, striving to remain close to family.
As a PhD candidate, Romero also served as a member of the university’s faculty, and though she was given limited resources, she had the benefit of a lot of autonomy, allowing her freedom to explore concepts that appealed to her—which would come in handy in the future.
In addition, her time at the University of Porto led to her engagement in an international training program. This program not only allowed her to travel all over Europe and meet laser science experts, but it also gave her access to experiments in laboratories across the continent, offering a line of sight into the evolution of laser research in a number of fields.
That early enthusiasm for the field remained, but as she wrapped up her PhD in 2005, she found herself unsure of what was next. She continued on as a postdoctoral researcher, but she began to feel stifled by the academic environment. Romero longed for a more entrepreneurial path, one where she would have the ability to take an idea or concept and follow it to its natural conclusion.
To seek out that flexibility, she shifted her focus to the private sector, becoming a member of a research and development team at Multiwave Photonics. Over the course of five years, Romero worked her way up, becoming a senior optical engineer. Then, in 2012, the company dismissed all of its employees as part of an organizational restructuring, sending her back to the drawing board.
Taking care of business
That shake-up was all Romero needed to pivot toward a different path: She returned to Porto to study business, becoming one of the few at the top of her field to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA). That work shed a whole new light on her career trajectory. Even today, Romero shares, many scientists don’t carry the necessary business acumen to take their ideas to the market. This work on the business side of the industry helped her combine her research prowess with her experience in the private sector to begin uncovering a path that married photonics innovation and ideas with the needs of the business community.
Fate may have also been on Romero’s side. Around the same time, she was approached by Helder Crespo, co-founder of the University of Porto’s Ultrashort Pulse Laboratory, who asked her if she was interested in starting a company. That possibility spoke to a culmination of her passions, tying her business skills with a photonics vision, and through a collaborative effort, Sphere Ultrafast Photonics was born, with Romero as the CEO from day one.
So, while advancing her MBA studies, Romero did everything necessary to build the foundation of the company. She worked on the strategy, business model, and business plan, all while completing her workload for her degree. And in order to formally kickstart the company, she began working on a proof of concept for a European Research Council grant. Romero recalls that it was during this project when she began working with Anne L’Huillier, head of the atomics and physics department at the University of Lund, a member of the Nobel Prize Committee and future Nobel Prize winner.
Despite the countless hours the pair put into the project, they were denied the grant. Again, Romero went back to the drawing board and, with the help of L’Huillier, submitted the design a second time. This time, the company was awarded the resources, which went towards building its first demo model. Finally, Sphere would have a physical product to show off to potential clients, and Romero could get down to business.
Location became another factor of consideration. Sphere Ultrafast Photonics was based in Portugal, while the vast majority of its clients were international buyers. Traditionally, companies like hers start by selling domestically, and later tap into the international market. Unfortunately, the photonics market in Portugal was extremely limited, meaning that Sphere would have to be, as Romero puts it, “born global.” This meant that it would have to build a strong presence in the photonics community to get off the ground, and truly take off. Fortunately, with the help of her colleagues’ reputations (and letting her work speak for itself), Sphere was able to hold its own within the photonics community.
Romero also explains that at Sphere Ultrafast Photonics, the client is, and has always been, the priority. Not only does the company construct its products around the needs of its customers, but it does so for customers working in the forefront of their industries, such as in microscopy. With this client-centric model, Romero and Sphere Ultrafast Photonic provide for the specific needs of the client, allowing the company to pivot and tailor its solutions to market demands.
Ahead of the curve
The path hasn’t been linear, though. As the company began its rise, another challenge put its future in jeopardy, one that Romero was familiar with: introducing a new product to an existing market.
Romero had experienced this issue in her previous position. While the company had innovative designs for the time, it launched products that the market simply couldn’t yet accommodate. Thus, it struggled to establish a consumer base. To avoid the same fate, Sphere Ultrafast Photonics placed its focus on diagnostics, and the implementation of lasers built by separate manufacturers, rather than focusing on the next home-run product. This way, Sphere could take a small bite out of the market, without having to worry about product support issues.
Nevertheless, Romero and Sphere Ultrafast Photonics still had a tall task ahead of them. They needed to establish a footing in a very niche market, create a trademark, and build the technology needed to run diagnostics in the first place. Thanks to Romero and her colleagues’ deep knowledge of the scientific community, this task proved more feasible than it appeared at first glance. Taking into consideration the worldwide quantity of laboratories and femtosecond lasers, as well as the price ranges of their competitors, Romero knew that the company had a market, and would be around for the long term. And after gathering with the company’s champions and leaders, Romero knew that Sphere Ultrafast Photonics was ready to set sail.
An evolving market
While the market still remains somewhat small, Sphere Ultrafast Photonics has firmly established its place within the photonics industry, becoming an increasing presence over the past decade-plus. The company remains vibrant and continues to adapt its solutions to the needs of its customers and offer answers to challenges meeting the larger landscape.
Reflecting on the current trajectory of Sphere Ultrafast Photonics, Romero sees its continued climb. In ten years’ time, she predicts that Sphere will triple in size, attributing most of this expansion to the evolution of the photonics market. More specifically, she hopes that ultrafast lasers will expand their practical applications outside of the laboratory.
Of all the thriving sectors with a stake in the photonics market, there is one area in particular which Romero believes will be the most explosive in the coming years: microprocessing. While the potential for the market is currently limited, Romero believes that a breakthrough in photonics is on the near horizon and will drastically expand the target audience of these technologies. She explains how she sees a future where the average consumer can utilize photonics to complete activities as ordinary as computer maintenance.
What exactly is the key to the future growth in consumerized photonics? If you ask Romero, she will tell you that lies in the work of Sphere Ultrafast Photonics and others like it. The current problem, she explains, is that the entrepreneurs looking to create new products often don’t have the knowledge or means to properly utilize ultrafast laser technologies. Sphere Ultrafast Photonics can provide the technology to make the control of these lasers as straightforward as possible.
Like everything else, though, this change takes time. As a new generation of entrepreneurs is born, Romero’s key advice for success in the industry is this: if you think you can do it, do it. She explains that even if others say an idea is too difficult to pursue, that it has too many logistical issues, or that it currently lacks a market, the idea should still be pursued.
That sense of perseverance and certainty of vision has served her well over the years, and when you look at how Romero’s journey has evolved, it’s hard not to agree that going all in makes the difference.