New UK photonics strategy emphasizes coherence

LONDON, ENGLAND-A recent review of the UK Photonics sector has produced a new government lead strategy for the industry.

LONDON, ENGLAND-A recent review of the UK Photonics sector has produced a new government lead strategy for the industry. The Photonics Strategy Group, which carried out the review on behalf of the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI), acknowledged the strength of technical innovation in the UK. But it also warned that fragmentation in the commercial sector could limit the UK’s ability to capitalize on those opportunities.

“The UK has excellent research credentials in photonics, but it lacks a coherent and co-ordinated strategy for developing and applying the technology,” said Ian Vance, chair of the strategy group.

Figures collated by the strategy group over the past year show that around 70% of photonics companies in the UK employ fewer than 10 people, while a further 22% employ fewer than 50. Many companies, both large and small, have diversified in the wake of the telecom downturn, and this adds to the impression of an unconnected industry that is ill-equipped to build the strategic partnerships which are vital to commercialization of early-stage products.

The DTI is suggesting a basket of measures to try to turn this around. First among them is the launching of a Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), receiving funding from the DTI of £3.3 m over the next three years. This seems to be the only new government money allocated as part of the strategy. The network, which was launched in July, hopes to encourage collaboration between academic and industrial partners with complementary skills and expertise. It will run alongside the established UK Displays and Lighting KTN.

Julian Jones from Heriot Watt University has played a central role in setting up the KTN and as President of UKCPO and a member of the Technical Opportunities Panel of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is a key player in the UK scene.

“The key objective will to bring together the creators of knowledge with the users of that knowledge,” he said. “I think it will be quite a tough challenge.”

Other tasks for the KTN will be to identify and catalogue all photonics activity in the UK, develop a roadmap for the photonics industry, and ensure effective communication between the photonics community and funding agencies, training providers and regional development organizations. Jones also hopes to organize an annual conference that will bring together different communities within the photonics sector.

The Photonics Strategy Group will stay together, rebranded as the Photonics Leadership Group, acting as the UK “voice” for photonics and driving forward the other recommendations. These include ensuring the supply of highly skilled photonics staff, raising the profile of photonics in the UK, both within the UK and internationally and ensuring that the UK remains an attractive location for existing photonics activities, as well as for inward investment by global photonics organizations. In addition the Group hopes to identify a series of “grand challenges,” similar to those set by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that are aligned to future needs in areas such as healthcare, security, and energy efficiency. The London 2012 Olympics was highlighted as one example of where new photonics technologies could be showcased. -Bridget K. Marx

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