Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SPIE Startup Challenge highlights high-tech photonics

It is an absolutely daunting challenge to attend a trade show like SPIE Photonics West 2013 and expect to come back to the office with a "comprehensive" view of what is new and exciting in the photonics industry. As one of my editorial colleagues remarked, "I feel like I saw 1% of the show." Truly, the show is awesome for its industry and networking events as well as the demonstration-packed exhibit, but I always feel like I've missed a lot. As an editor for Laser Focus World, that is not a good thing!


So thank goodness for the three-year-old SPIE Startup Challenge! Wow, what an awesome way to discover ten of the top photonics startup companies in our industry--with truly "high tech" innovations--through their rapid-fire series of presentations to a distinguished panel of photonics industry investors and technology experts like Jason Eichenholz of Open Photonics, Patricia Glaza from Arsenal Venture Partners, and Adam Wax of Duke University. The presentations "took off" much like the small plane in the SPIE Startup Challenge logo above. And just what was at stake during the Wednesday, Feb 6 presentations at 3:30 pm?: $10,000 to the top entrepreneurial company with the best technology, and $5000 and $2500 to the second- and third-place winners, respectively.

A video of the winning company and technology from SPIE.TV is included below:


From 20 semi-final presentations (see them here at as all are worthy of mention) came 10 total finalists, who were each given just three minutes to present their technology to the panel. I feel compelled to list all 10 of  them here, including the top winners, just to give you an idea of how much innovation was packed into the competing technologies (HIGHLIGHTED IN ALL CAPS):




ACOUSTICALLY TUNABLE MASS-MARKET DFB LASER; Michael Engelmann of MACH8 Lasers, The Netherlands


RAPID PATHOLOGY AT THE BEDSIDE; Sanjee Abeytunge of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, NY USA

LOW-COST NONINVASIVE DEVICE FOR ORAL CANCER SCREENING; Christopher Glazowski of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, NY USA


DOUBLE HELIX OPTICS TO SEE MORE AND CLEARER; Leslie Kimerling and Rafael Piestun of Double Helix LLC, CO USA


The technologies presented were primarily in the biomedical field, echoing what our staff wrote in our Photonics West 2013 Preview about the emphasis on biomedical optics and the overwhelming influence of the BiOS Symposium. Bio is big business today, especially for low-cost devices that truly displace huge, complex laboratory scale equipment and take medicine closer to the patient in a point-of-care setting.

I spoke with Arun Chhabra, co-founder of 8tree, the company that took top winnings in the SPIE Startup Challenge for its fastCHECK 3D surface inspection system. Chhabra and his co-founder Erik Klaas learned of the competition through an SPIE email while the pair were visiting customers in Bangalore, India just two days before the deadline and decided to enter. In a nutshell, 8tree is working to disrupt the 3D scanning landscape as we know it. Their unique approach rests on 3 core pillars: (1) delivering incredibly easy-to-use (no learning curve) scanners that address specific and chronic market problems, (2) integrating Augmented Reality techniques with 3D scanning to deliver instant analysis, thereby making results immediately actionable and easy to understand, and (3) offering a pragmatic approach to making 3D scanning more affordable so it can be adopted in new, higher-volume markets. Their first product focuses on addressing the chronic problem of 3D surface inspection systems for aircraft rivet inspection. The idea is to displace bulky, complex, industrial inspection systems with small point-and-shoot instruments that deliver a "visual" display that technicians can easily interpret. Watch a demonstration video of their products at

In fact, the one common thread for most of the SPIE Startup Challenge technologists was the desire to significantly reduce the complexity of scientific instrumentation into a user-friendly device that anyone could master in a very short period of time, without sacrificing performance. Look for future World News stories on many of the technologies described here, including 8tree's 3D inspection system, in future issues of Laser Focus World. And next year, don't forget to attend the 2014 SPIE Startup Challenge--I know I'll be there!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar at Photonics West -- specific markets

Continued from today's earlier blog on the morning's presentations for the Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar . . .

OCT market
Eric Swanson of OCT News spoke on the OCT (optical coherence tomography) market.  The field began in the late 1980s; now there are on the order of 50 companies.

Patents play a big role in OCT; there are more than 1000 issued OCT patents -- it is difficult to get fundamental patents now. Worldwide government funding for OCT has reached $1B, with $300M cumulative NIH funding. Cardiovasulare OCT revenue is 1/3 that of opthalmic OCT, but growing.  There have been $300M in acquisitions, but no OCT company has gone public yet.

For a more complete summary of this OCT market talk, go to BioOptics World's wonderful blog, BioOptics WorldView.

Challenges in mergers and acquisitions
The first (rhetorical) question from presenter Robert Mandra (RSM Advisors) was," Is now a good time to sell?"  He notes that the quantity of laser and optics deals over the last fifteen years have been relatively constant per year (with a few outliers).  His second question: "What are photonics acquirers looking for?"

The photonics industry is very fragmented (as we all know).  Many optical materials architectures; very precise alignment is often required.  Manufacturing these diverse devices and systems is quite a challenge (as we all also know).  Many, many diverse end markets also complicate design and marketing.  By comparison, the semiconductor industry is straightforward and easier for potential acquirers to get comfortable with!

Robert notes that this diversity makes it hard to find a match; the devil is in the details.  His approach and advice: just proceed one step at a time, do a fundamental, honest assessment of your specific business.  Figure out what leverage you can offer your potential acquirer.  In particular, you must make a special effort to educate any potantial acquirers, especially if they are from outside the optical industry.

New model for innovation and spinoffs
Jason Eichenholz, CEO of Open Photonics (OPI), notes that we are still in the "vacuum tube" era of photonics.  There are technical innovators who have great technology but not a clue how to commercialize them; then there are the innovators who know the markets; how to bring them together?  (This is the raison d'etre of OPI, a photonics-only accelerator company.)  Crowd-sourcing, key to open innovation, is intended to allow companies (as they grow) to use external as well as internal ideas; the result could be the discovery of entirely new markets.

In addition, your internal ideas and technology could be useful to others (licensing, etc.).  The "Photonics Horizons" program has a phase I (proof of concept, $10K from OPI, "no strings attached," IP stays with inventor) and, for phase I winners, a phase II (up to $100K, IP transfer arranged as part of the phase II proposal); both phases are peer-reviewed by tech and business experts, notes Jason. Corporate engagement comes in two versions: tier I sponsorship ($275k/year) and tier II ($65k/year).

Opportunities in fiber lasers
Valentin Gapontsev, founder of IPG Photonics, has advanced the field of fiber lasers like no other.  IPG received the Forbes award in 2012 as the 9th fastest-growing company in the U.S. on total return (Apple was 8th).  IPG currently has 2300 employees worldwide.

Fiber lasers currently have a majority market share in the high-power, metal marking, and microprocessing sectors and are still gaining, says Gapontsev.  The fiber-laser market is projected to grow from $588M in 2011 to $1,365M in 2016.  High-power CW fiber lasers that emit to power levels of 100 kW, or single-mode power levels to 10 kW, are gaining worldwide acceptance for automotive, aerospace, oil and gas, nuclear, and metal manufacturing.  Mean time to failure has been pushed to greater than 10 years.  China is the biggest market for nanosecond-range pulsed fiber lasers.

Optical components for ultrafast lasers
Ruediger Paschotta (RP Photonics Consulting GmbH) notes that limited choice of solid-state ultrafast optical gain materials leads to tradeoffs, for example between pulse duraction and output power -- top viable materials include Ti:sapphire and Yb- and Nd- doped glasses, or for ultrafast fiber lasers, Yb, Er, or Tm doping.  However, none comes with universal advantages. Fibers have a tradeoff between high doping concentrations for short length, and nonlinear effects. (Nonlinearity is the bane of ultrafast fiber lasers.) 

A solution to nonlinearities is CPA (chirped pulse amplification), but this leads to complexity and more components.  Pulse energy in fibers can be boosted by lowering the pulse repetition rate, but nonlinear effects get worse (those dastardly nonlinearities again). Detailed characterization for doped active fibers is important, but often neglected.  Passive fibers (photonic crystal and other) are also often integrated into fiber laser systems, used as CPA elements etc. as well as power delivery; the important point is that these systems have complex and interlocking properties that demand high R&D expertise, so find the best people you can.  Also, a good relationship with top fiber manufacturers will stand you in good stead.

Mid-IR and quantum-cascade lasers
Petros Kotidis, CEO of Block Engineering, talks about taking the quantum-cascade laser (QCL) to the next level in practice, in the form of widely tunable devices that, in instrumentation, access very large portions of the spectroscopic "fingerprint" region for organic materials.  Markets for this type of hardware are opening up in the areas of food production and monitoring, pharmaceuticals, gas sensing, battlefield detection of improvised explosive devices (IEDs, for example in a vehicle or buried under earth), and characterization of lubricants, to name only a few.

Standoff detection (up to 3 ft away) via handheld QCL-based spectrometers will be the driver for many of these applications, which require easy portability as well as accuracy and tunability.  Micro- to nanoscale contaminants, coatings, and biological films are common targets.  Cleaning verification of pharmaceutical vessels (allowing quicker turnaround between batches) is an early example of this technology put into practice.

White-light supercontinuum fiber lasers
Wilhelm Kaenders (Toptica) describes such devices as "broad as a lamp, bright as a laser."  In this case, nonlinearities in an ultrafast fiber laser are your friend, rather than your enemy -- as they result in the white light produced by supercontinuum lasers (in fact, highly nonlinear fibers are one important approach).

Nanosecond, picosecond, and femtosecond seed-pulse devices exist.  Application spaces include biological imaging, industrial imaging, and laboratory use.  These devices are becoming more important in the biological imaging market -- linear and nonlinear fluorescence microscopy, ophthalmology, flow cytometry, etc.  In just one use, a supercontinuum laser plus tunable filter equals a versatile, bright tunable source for microscopy.

Femtosecond fiber lasers can produce spectrally coherent supercontinua. Much lower spectral and amplitude noise are the result, as well as more-efficient nonlinear frequency conversion.  Frequency combs with 300 kHz individual comb lines are possible. Broadband interference is another effect, which can be exploited to form a spatial or temporal meter.  Simplicity is another advantage for supercontinuum-laser-produced frequency combs, eliminating the conventional pre-existing room-sized setup and replacing it with a small box.

Ultrahigh-brightness direct-diode industrial lasers
Parviz Tayebati, president of TeraDiode, delved into laser cutting and laser welding/brazing as accomplished by direct-diode lasers (high-power systems that channel laser-diode light as effeciently as possible into fibers for delivery to the workspace). Power ranges from 500 W up to 4 kW for laser cutting (an application driven primarily by the automotive and aerospace industries).

Wavelength beam combination of many laser diodes produces a beam quality as good as that of a single sourceat up to kilowatt levels for cutting and welding.  For example, a 600 W device uses nine diode bar modules, diodes and optical components are assembled semi-automatically (measurement-based and software-guided).  All this light is then channeled into a fiber.

For higher powers (up to 6 kW), polarization beam combining and sometimes a dichroic combination of two disparate already-combined wavelength ranges is done.  The resulting beam-parameter product out of the fiber is around 4 mm-mrad. Such devices are capable of displacing fiber and disk lasers for some applications, as ultrahigh efficiency is possible due to the removal of the conventional two-step diode pumped gain material setup.

And that's it for now -- a brief summary of the 2013 Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar.  Of course, to get the other 99% you have to attend the seminar . . . but, for those who missed out, there's always next year.

Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar at Photonics West -- a morning full of info

Laser Focus World's 2013 Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar, being held today (Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 at Photonics West, is off to a roaring start, with much of the general market info being presented in the morning.  With the caveat that one cannot capture more than a small portion of the info in a short blog, here's a quick recap of the morning's events so far . . .

General market
Allen Nogee of Strategies Unlimited was up first, giving an overall summary of the 2012 market and predictions for 2013.  His long list of quicly developing laser applications included some not well-known yet, such as the longe range detection of an automobile driver's breath alcohol through a car's window (ah, the benefits of spectroscopy!).

Allen notes that, for the general laser market, the good is that it is growing in emerging economies, but less good is the currently slowing growth in the Chines economy.  Greater than 95% of lasers come from 4 countries -- US, Japan, Germany, and China; biggest sales by application are lasers for communications and data storage, other laser diode applications, and materials processing.  Optical storage is on the way out, however, due to growth of online data storage and streaming.

China is now mandating optical fiber to all new homes, which is a boon for the datacom laser market.  In addition,  the effects of Hurricane Sandy are accelerating the replacement of copper with fiber for datacom in New York City.

Medical lasers had a good year in 2012, but a hitch in 2013 is a 2.3% tax imposed on medical equipment due to the Obama health-care initiative.  As for R&D lasers, the market will be up by a small amount in 2013.  Lasers for sensing (spectroscopy, etc.) will do well in 2013. For complete info in the 2013 laser market, Allen and Strategies Unlimited have put together the Worldwide Market for Lasers: Market Review and Forecast 2013 .

Industrial laser market
David Belforte of Industrial Laser Solutions was up next.  Fiber lasers have a projected 7% growth for 2013 -- fullfilling a need for compact and powerful lasers that are easy to deploy. Diode and excimer lasers for industry wull outperform the market in 2013.  Marking and engraving are the largest markets by unit sales -- here, fiber dominates.

The Asian fiber market has a half of the world's industrial laser installations. Both Asia and North America are exceeding expectations; Europe will be stagnant in 2013.

Interestingly, David believes that the predicted dip in the medical area (lasers are important for the manufacture of medical devices) due to the Obama changes to health care will work themselves out -- because they have to be.  To keep from injuring the industry, the taxes will have to be "tweaked."

Chinese market
Bo Gu, a San Francisco consultant, next presented on the laser market in China.  He notes that ultrafast laser processing for solar and semiconductor industries and direct-diode laser systems are growing fast. Low-power diode lasers have matured.  Chines laser equipment market for 2013 will be 54% low power welding lasers, with the rest high-power, but this will be reversed in a couple of years, says Gu.

A few of the trends for the next few years in China: green/UV and ultrafast lasers, especially picosecond lasers, will grow.  Chinese fiber-laser manufacturers will grow rapidly, and will become vertically integrated.  Kilowatt-level fiber lasers will enter the market, with 2 to 4 kW being the focus.  Government initiatives will be important for driving laser growth.

Before too long, China will become the largest economy in the world; to compete there, you will need to have the right business models and philosphies, says Gu.

OCT market
Eric Swanson of OCT News speaks next on the OCT (optical coherence tomography) market.  The field began in the late 1980s; now there are on the order of 50 companies.  More to come . . .