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SPIE Professional October 2009

Growing an Optics Economy

Incubation centers can be a successful way to kickstart the economy.

Government and business groups have been offering a variety of stimulus plans to get the global economy back on track over the last year or so.

Incubation centers for technology startups, including those involving optics and photonics technologies, have received a fair amount of attention as a way to jumpstart the economy, and they have a long history of success.

Incubation Centers for Aerospace Technology

The European Space Agency (ESA), the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the German federal state of Bavaria, and the German bank Kreissparkasse München Starnberg on 3 August opened the fourth ESA Business Incubation Centre for the transfer of aerospace technology to other sectors.

The new center, in Oberpfaffenhofen, about 20 kilometers from Munich, offers young companies and business startups an ideal environment for using their aerospace expertise in marketable new products.

Over the next four years, some 40 company startups are expected to be supported in Oberpfaffenhofen, adding further impetus to the success of ESA technology transfer and business incubation. The ESA earlier established incubation centers in the Netherlands (Noordwijk), Italy (Frascati), and Germany (Darmstadt).

To date, 65 startups have been guided towards business success, including etamax's 'G-WaLe' at the center in Darmstadt. G-WaLe is the first system to use signals from navigation satellites to measure and report in near-real time the prevailing water level of endangered river sections. Potential customers include agencies for high-water protection and management of water resources, and insurance companies.

ESA incubator
The new ESA incubator facility in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.
Jena Incubators and a City of the Future

The ESA effort builds on the success in Jena (Germany) of three business incubators, the Technology and Innovation Park, the Bioinstrumentation Centre, and the Innovation and Founders' Laboratory for New Materials and Processes (IGWV). Since 1991, for instance, the Technology and Innovation Park has supported more than 175 companies in the startup and stabilization phases in the fields of communication and software development, laser technology and micro-systems engineering, sensor technology and optics, as well as medical engineering.

Their ideas and corporate profiles include the automated manufacture of aspherical lenses, microfabrication of superconductive sensors, miniaturized technological solutions for chemical analysis, optical measurement technology, and new medical engineering solutions for the production of patient-specific implants.

Looking into the future, optics visionaries in the south of France have proposed Optopolis, a city of the future that will promote the commercialization of photonics innovations and knowledge transfer. Optopolis will be set up as an extension of the Hôtel Technoptic and is designed to be both a business incubator and support center for SMEs.

Universities Help With Incubation

Newcastle University (UK) supports business incubation through the North East Technology Park (NETPark) and, with an investment of £7.2m from British government, a state-of-the-art scientific center.

NETPark focuses on physical sciences, such as plastic electronics, micro-electronics, photonics, nanotechnology, and their application in the fields of energy, defense, and medical-related technologies. The park has incubated 118 companies.

The Newcastle University Innovation Centre for Nanotechnology opened earlier this year and fosters investment in and commercialization of green technology companies and products.

The Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California at Irvine (USA) has a Photonic Incubator aimed at developing new biomedical systems for medical diagnostics, therapeutics, and cellular/molecular analysis. The Beckman incubator utilizes the institute's existing facilities, scientific, and medical expertise as well as extensive corporate contacts for technology transfer.

Boston University has two business incubators, the Photonics Center Incubator for technology-based startups and one that focuses on biomedical products and life sciences. The Photonics Center Incubator, founded in 2000, has helped start 23 companies in the last three years and created 150 jobs.

Companies in the BU incubator have worked with faculty, staff, and graduate students to develop technologies and products such as a laser system for the treatment of glaucoma; a PET ring for the early detection of cancer; specialty optical fiber for telecommunications; and a sequencer for decoding the human genome.

This year, there are 70 people employed in the 13 incubating photonics companies. Bostonia magazine highlights the successes of the photonics incubator in its fall 2009 issue.

French Institute Spinoff

IOTech, the technology transfer office at the Institut d'Optique in Orsay, France, fosters the incubation of optics businesses by supporting startups through public subsidies, the use of its own technological or financial means, and through the loan of equipment.

Public subsidies come from institutions such as the National Agency for Promotion of Research (ANVAR) and the Centre Regional pour l'Innovation et le Transfert de Technologie (CRITT).

One of IOTech's success stories is GENOPTICS, a spinoff company from research at the institute's Laboratoire Charles Fabry. GENOPTICS, which specializes in a biological sensor that uses surface plasmon resonance imagery to study in vitro protein-ligand interactions, was acquired by a French affiliate of HORIBA Scientific earlier this year.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200910.03