Interview

“Eindhoven is a clear hotspot for photonics”

How to expand an R&D company into production? The CEO of a photonics start-up explains.

Created in 2012, SMART Photonics develops semiconductor chips that work with light. A spin-off from the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e) with 70 employees and 30 clients, the company has received an investment of €6 million allowing it to buy equipment for a production pilot.

The company has moved its head offices from TU/e to the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, a research and development centre and home to more than 140 young companies. Its 5,000-m2 production plant will be ready in 2021, with a turnover planned to be above €200 million by 2022. CEO Richard Visser explains SMART Photonics’ strategy.

Technologist: How does a young company move to professional production?

Richard Visser: SMART Photonics specialises in the development of semiconductors based on indium phosphite. Proven as the best choice for many applications, the integrated photonics can be used for telecom communications, medical diagnostics, aircraft industry or ultra-secure cryptography. To create a professional production plant for such a technology is quite a big challenge. We started planning this facility six years ago when we created the company.

With respect to the new technology, we first focussed on a mature and stable process to ensure functional products. The next phase is to reproduce the products with the same quality. Quality and capacity of the production plant must be under control. When you move to a professional production plant it’s vital to have clear targets on technology, operational excellence and customer requirements. After that, you’re ready to scale up.

T: What are the main hurdles?

R.V.: Finding investors. Every company wants to develop quickly, but with new technology you lose a lot of time explaining it. It’s very important to select the right investors and take the time to explain your technology, strategy and targets. And, of course, convincing investors that your technology will be successful is always difficult.

T: What are the risks?

R.V.: Losing focus. Running the company while having all these investment discussions, you can easily get distracted. You have to stay focussed on what you believe.

T: How will you choose the location of your future production site?

R.V.: For an optimal production plant, you have to consider such factors as the location, the availability of buildings with the right permits and the availability of employees. In terms of market potential, photonics’ segment is a niche market. So we need employees with knowledge of our technology: semiconductors and photonics.

In addition, we want to maintain close links with universities to benefit from their knowledge and to meet engineers who have advanced knowledge in our field. Eindhoven is a clear hotspot for photonics. In the future, we don’t exclude any destination because we need resources and equipment to produce mass components. Asia could be a destination, among others. But for the moment we’re staying in Eindhoven.