Fast-developing photonics sector is a key driver for innovation.

Fast-developing photonics sector is a key driver for innovation.

By Anke Lohmann

This week, we witnessed an enlightened parliamentary debate on photonics – a sector in which the UK has significant strengths but that, as acknowledged by Science Minister Jo Johnson, remains underappreciated.

The debate, chaired by Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark, followed on from the formation of the first All-Party Parliamentary Group on Photonics. Is this a sign that enabling technologies will have a more recognised role to play, especially in light of the government’s Industrial Strategy programme?

Enabling technologies are taken for granted: they are invisible, and yet they are essential to many of the innovations and disruptive technologies we encounter. Photonics is probably the most obscure of them. The technology, which utilises the properties of light, has many applications – including microscopy, satellite imaging, 3D scanning, the fibreoptic communication that enables the internet, LED lighting, solar electricity, laser additive manufacturing and laser eye surgery.

Because photonics is developing at a rapid pace, it is a key driver for innovation. And as it happens, the UK is very good at it. A KTN study has so far identified over 1,500 organisations working in the sector; most of them SMEs making high-tech and high-value products. The sector is growing at an average pace of 6-8 % – contributing  approximately £10.5bn to the UK economy – and employs over 70,000 people, most of them highly skilled. More than 90% of the resulting products are being exported.

The debate made clear that the government recognises the sector’s great potential. Jo Johnson also recognises the strength the UK has in photonics research and emphasised that it is important that that is being translated into our industry. He noted that Innovate UK had been continuously investing in enabling technologies, which specifically includes photonics. One example he gave is that of M Squared Lasers – a company which secured an impressive return on investment from Innovate UK funding and which also had support from KTN.

It is not just funding that is needed to drive innovation – it is also getting to the right partners. As part of the Innovate UK family, KTN is very engaged in photonics sector and has a very good standing within the photonics community; facilitating much-appreciated cross-sector networking. For example, we have been talking to photonics technologists about entering the health care market, including how to overcome any barriers. We also ran an event on imaging; showcasing imaging technologies and networking across imaging communities from different sectors.

We are also evaluating the photonics community and highlighting trends. We are currently carrying out a UK photonics innovation landscape survey. The results will be presented in an interactive map in the coming months. We also commissioned a report on the opportunities for photonics in data centres, which is a growth market. One of the key findings was the need to bring the supply chain together, from the photonics manufacturer to the end-user of data centre services, and this will be a focus for us in 2017.

As Jo Johnson told MPs: “We have an edge in photonics, but we’re not taking it for granted.”