Wolfgang Boch, head of the European Commission's (EC) Photonics Unit, is optimistic that the photonics industry in Europe, focused on industrial needs, jobs, and societal challenges, will remain vibrant and vital to Europe's competitiveness.
Boch spoke with the Photonics West Show Daily a year after taking over leadership of the photonics unit previously managed by Thomas Skordas.
Prior to joining the EC in 1989, Boch earned his master's degree in electrical engineering from University of Karlsruhe and worked as an R&D project leader in the German aerospace and avionics industry. In Brussels, he has held several management positions related to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) under the European Union's various Framework Programmes for research and innovation.
From 2007 to 2013, he was responsible for "Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) - Proactive Initiatives." He also headed the unit responsible for the selection and launch of the high-profile "FET Flagship" research initiatives on graphene and the human brain.
"One of the key characteristics of these large-scale FET Flagships is that they are science-driven but bring in industrial partners at an early stage so as to increase the opportunities for early deployment of new innovative products and solution," Boch says.
"Now, as head of the photonics unit, I am closing the circle by moving back into a field that is strongly industry-dominated, its activities much more focused on developments driven by concrete business opportunities and the creation of new products and markets."
With the significant investment in photonics via a new public-private partnership (PPP) initiative, part of Europe's seven-year Horizon 2020 innovation effort, Boch says that there is a reinvigorated drive supporting the photonics community. The EC has committed €700 million to meet the photonics PPP objectives, with the private sector pledging four times that amount to make a total investment of €3.5 billion.
New EC funding instruments
The purpose of the PPP is to use photonics to create economic growth and jobs in Europe, and to create innovative solutions for some the key societal challenges.
"Horizon 2020 places a lot of emphasis on innovation, which means that research and development actions need to be complemented by innovation actions which target activities closer to the market and higher Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs)," Boch says. "Our toolkit of funding instruments has been extended to support these innovation activities."
For innovation actions, the EC is demanding that industry partners put more substantiated business cases forward when applying for funding, to establish the market opportunities and the path to commercialization of new products and services. Only where the mission is clear will it support those activities with appropriate funding.
But as part of Horizon 2020, the Commission has also devised new funding instruments to accelerate innovation. Historically, one intrinsic feature of its funding regime was that an EU-funded research action required the involvement of at least three different partners from three different countries.
To some extent that is still the case, but in order help to increase the number of high-potential SMEs involved in Horizon 2020 and simultaneously cut the level of bureaucracy, there is a new instrument.
This allows an individual company from just one country to bid for European funding on its own. In the first SME calls, launched in 2014, of the 155 successful bids from companies across all industries, Boch says that more than 10 percent were in the photonics sector.
Boch's impressions of European photonics
So, one year into the job, what is Boch's impression of European photonics?
"The photonics industry is currently in a good state," he says. "But it does need special attention and further support. This is not a contradiction. It is about investing public money in a vibrant and vital sector, which has a high potential for creating growth and jobs."
He feels that a good level of coordination and network of companies and organizations has been established, helping new business ecosystems form across the continent. "This enables coordinated working together on jointly agreed research projects in ways that are more efficient and more effective," he said.
"This is good for all the [players] in this sector, which has been previously rather fragmented, from SMEs to large industry and from universities to research organizations. Photonics21 has played a key role in this and now the photonics PPP will bring this collaboration of the public and private sector to the next level."
In Europe, the photonics sector is considered to be agile and successful at discovering new opportunities across a vast range of applications and markets. A good example is with laser-based manufacturing. Europe has about half of the global market, but this area still requires continuous development to keep pace with the new concepts of highly networked manufacturing processes and ever-increasing digitization.
Boch also sees major opportunities in the medical sector. "Other strong European photonics areas are in optical communications and in biophotonics," he said.
"Exploiting biophotonics offers huge opportunities, for example in terms of early detection of diseases such as cancer or performing blood sample analysis with lab-on-chip solutions at the patient's bedside with instant results. So there are still major market opportunities ahead of us."
But as Europe gets its act together on the benefits of collaboration and builds on its wealth of academic and commercial resources, there is the ever-present competition from Asia and the Americas.
Considering the more coordinated approach emerging in the US over the last few years, Boch says that it appears "competition is increasing on all fronts and the speed of innovation is further increasing. The US is putting millions of dollars into the creation of more than ten different new facilities for manufacturing, which will strongly benefit photonics-related areas. We are also seeing increasing competition from south-east Asia and China.
"Consider the LED lighting market. It's clear that this technology addresses a global market and I think that all European players are aware that we need to continuously remain competitive, strive to protect our position and strengthen collaborations."
New European Commission good for photonics
Led by Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission has been in office since November 2014. Its investment plan includes building on a close partnership between the EC and the European Investment Bank.
Under that new regime there are now two full-time commissioners looking after the possibilities relating to the photonics sector. They are Günther Oettinger, who has overall responsibility for Digital Economy & Society, and Andrus Ansip, commissioner for the Digital Single Market and also EC Vice President. So how is the new organization likely to impact photonics?
"Among the new people at the helm of the Commission, there is a strong commitment to create fresh investments in Europe, to remove regulatory bottlenecks, to enable Europe to emerge stronger with focused investments in new innovation infrastructure projects," Boch says.
"These initiatives will not only help a faster rollout of broadband communication networks, but will also benefit development of key enabling technologies such as photonics, advanced manufacturing or nano-micro-electronics, to accelerate innovation and create stronger innovation hubs in Europe.
"In summary, I would contend that whole digital sector — including photonics — has gained additional weight under the new Juncker Commission."
Political pressure for European photonics: create jobs
Arguably, the needs of the European industry and the required focus on re-industrialization through key enabling technologies such as photonics is something now better understood by politicians.
Boch also believes that the International Year of Light presents a fantastic opportunity to create a greater awareness and appreciation of photonics technology to both politicians and the wider public.
"It is not by chance that the European Commission is a strong supporter of the International Year of Light," he said. "Expressed in relatively simple terms, photonics is driving innovation in the 21st century [just] as electronics drove innovation in the 20th century."
However, it would be incorrect to characterize the photonics industry as a complete bed of roses. There is always room for improvement, and during his first year in the job, Boch has identified a few recommendations:
"One of the observations I have made is that while photonics SMEs invariably understand their technologies well, there is still some serious homework to do. They still need to invest more time and effort into understanding both their competitors and the marketplace, in other words to prepare themselves better to attract investors to engage in their business.
"The message I would have for academics and researchers in photonics is that the European Commission cannot afford to fund research when it does not have concrete applications or business opportunity in mind.
"We are facing more than ever the political pressure that there needs to be a more effective link between public investments in R&D and jobs it may help to create."
Having managed programs both in industry and science, he acknowledges the benefits of "blue sky" research but that kind of research is not in the focus of the actions funded by the EC in the ICT and the photonics area.
"Our photonic actions are very much focused on and driven by meeting industrial needs and societal challenges," he said.
"I am very positive about the photonics sector in Europe and optimistic that these challenges can be met."
♦ This article previously appeared in the 12 February 2015 issue of the Show Daily, an SPIE publication distributed at SPIE Photonics West.
♦ An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the July 2015 issue of SPIE Professional.