The ‘Future of Light’ looks very bright

A cold, cloudy day in downtown Boston couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the approximately 250 attendees at The Future of Light conference, the 9th Annual Executive Symposium of Emerging Business Opportunities in Photonics.

BOSTON, MA - A cold, cloudy day in downtown Boston couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the approximately 250 attendees at The Future of Light conference, the 9th Annual Executive Symposium of Emerging Business Opportunities in Photonics. Held on November 10 and hosted by The Photonics Center at Boston University, the goal of the conference was to give key decision makers a perspective on the current status and future outlook of the photonics industry. Judging by the number of presentations that referenced typical compound annual growth rates (CAGR) of 10%-15% for most photonics-related markets, the future does look very bright indeed. However, experts cautioned that the venture-capital climate is a bit murky.

In his welcome and overview presentation to the day-long conference, Donald Fraser, director of The Photonics Center, exclaimed, “We are positioned to nurture,” as he described how the Center is fostering entrepreneurship in photonics. In the last 6 years, the Center has received $250 million in investment capital. Of the 18 companies it has launched since its inception, only two have failed. The Center credits their ability to reduce the risk for new companies by making sure a market need exists, and by teaching young entrepreneurs how to “execute” their business plans through industry collaborations and partnerships. Fraser sees the Future of Light conference as one important way to continue nurturing relationships in the Optoelectronics industry.

The conference began with a presentation by John Adams, chairman and founder of Adams Harkness, entitled “Photonics Investment Outlook.” Adams pointed out that the overall US high-technology initial public offering (IPO) market has been steadily slowing in recent years, primarily due to increasing regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, as well as a relaxation of telecom IPOs after the well-publicized bubble collapse. He suggested that fledgling photonics companies look to the London Stock Exchange, which has seen an uptick in IPO activity. But he was careful to point out that this negative IPO trend may be one of the factors in industry consolidation, such as the billion-dollar Philips-Lumileds merger.

Adams’ investment overview was followed by a more detailed, country-by-country photonics market-growth overview by Michael Lebby, executive director of the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA; Washington, DC). Lebby showed how the short-term effects of the bubble have since subsided as the market growth in photonics continues its upward trend towards typical 10%-15% CAGRs. His recent development of a market overview and indium phosphide (InP) roadmap was part of his plan to energize OIDA (see Optoelectronics Report, July 1, 2005, p. 3); a large portion of his presentation discussed the need for an InP foundry.

In a recent Photonics North conference review (see Optoelectronics Report, September 15, 2005, p. 5), Canada’s increasing activity in the area of biophotonics was highlighted. The importance of this growing industry was again emphasized by Pierre Coulombe, president of the National Research Council of Canada (Ottawa, ON, Canada), who presented “Canada’s National Perspective on the Photonics Industry.” Coulombe also made the lunchtime announcement that the International Photonics Commercialization Alliance has been launched, a non-profit organization that will create links between worldwide photonic organizations and industry for the purpose of accelerating commercialization of photonic technologies (see related story, page 5).

Additional presentations by Gregory Shelton, VP of engineering technology & quality at Raytheon (Waltham, MA), and Robert Deuster, chairman and CEO of Newport Corporation (Irvine, CA), addressed the military and industrial photonics markets, respectively. Shelton said that Raytheon sees a dynamic future for “spectrally agile sensors” that can span the spectrum from terahertz through UV, visible, IR and beyond, with tremendous challenges remaining in processing the vast amounts of data these sensors are gathering. Deuster’s key message was that photonic applications demand more than a collection of components: customers want “light engines”-integrated solutions that optimize individual components to meet a particular application.

It was good to hear Ed Murphy, CTO for the Components and Modules Group of JDSU (San Jose, CA), announce that “FTTP is here for broadband access.” Apparently, the network of the immediate future is 40 Gbps, with photonic power (an emerging concept) and all-optically controlled, all-optical switching. The growth rates for optical communications are respectable, but Murphy warned that the industry should remain focused on cost reduction and profitability rather than hype.

The conference concluded with presentations by Charles Swoboda, chairman & CEO of Cree Corporation (Durham, NC), and George Mueller, founder and chairman of Color Kinetics (Boston, MA), who offered nearly identical visions for the future of the solid-state lighting market but swore they did not collaborate on their presentations. Both Swoboda and Mueller believe the best way to approach the future is to create SSL fixtures that become part of the architecture.

According to Swoboda, it is not a question of if LEDs will take over lighting, but when and how fast. The assumptions have been that LEDs aren’t bright enough, cheap enough, and are five years away, but Swoboda warns that these assumptions “are no longer valid.” He pointed out that 80% of installed traffic signals use LEDs, and that developing regulations targeting 40 lumens per watt will eliminate incandescent and halogen lighting for new industrial installations. Mueller sees a future in which office buildings will be lit by white LEDs that can dynamically change color temperature and influence the “emotive” behavior of office workers: warm light for the morning to simulate the red tones of the rising sun and cool, blue tones for the afternoon to simulate bright sunlight.

- Gail Overton

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