The European Photonics Industry Consortium: keeping photonics in Europe

Director general of EPIC, Carlos Lee, spoke to Innovation News Network about how European competitiveness is helping drive the photonics industry in Europe.

The European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) is the industry association that promotes the sustainable development of organisations working in the field of photonics in Europe. Innovation News Network spoke to Carlos Lee, Director General of EPIC, about his mission to grow European competitiveness within the photonics industry and to make Europe the recognised leading place for photonics.

How would you describe the work and role of EPIC?

When it comes to technology, the photonics and electronics industries are not that different from one another. However, the main difference between the two is the maturity and the ecosystems. For example, I consider the electronics industry as a mature industry (the suppliers know each other, they’ve got standards, technology road maps, etc.), whereas photonics is approximately 20 years younger. Despite this, the photonics eco-system in Europe is massive; there’s around 40 regional/national clusters in photonics, compared to electronics where there are only two. In photonics, we’ve got 5,000 companies and 86% of those are small companies that are less than 10 years old – the photonics industry is mostly made up of small, young companies and as a result, the industry is evolving a lot.
EPIC is an industry association, representing companies rather than individual people, and the majority of work we do is for the European competitiveness. To me, competitiveness is to do with manufacturing and research. We are European orientated, 90% of our members are European but we also have world leading members. As a lot of the competitiveness has gone over to international countries such as China, we are trying to get some of this back over to Europe.

My vision for European competitiveness is for the companies to remain innovative and agile. I strongly believe that companies in Europe will strive and succeed because they are innovative, and one of the reasons for this is because they know each other and work really well together. I often compare it to being like a football team; even if you have the money to buy the best players, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have the best team, you need something else. And to me, that is what we are doing at EPIC – this year we will be reaching 500 members. The Munich show is approximately 1,300 exhibitors, imagine that half of these exhibitors really knew each other; they know what their products do, they have a good relationship etc and they communicate regularly (with both ideas and problems). If you do this among hundreds of companies, I believe that this would be the answer for competitiveness.

As a result, this concept is why the most important thing we do at EPIC are the meetings. We organise 40 to 50 events though we are not an event organisation; we are a non for profit, industry association and membership funded. Since we don’t make money from the events, I really don’t care how many people are there; I just want to have the best possible meeting. For us, having a good meeting means you have the end users who say what they need, the system integrators, the component suppliers – the whole value chain. What we try and achieve is gather an audience of people who are decision makers, who have a strong influence in the company and understand technology.

How have your activities changed/grown in recent years? And how would you describe the ways in which the European photonics sector similarly evolved?

EPIC has existed for 15 years now and I started working here seven years ago. However, what I can say is that what I have seen is the continuation of new companies being created; therefore, new ideas and start-ups continue as well. In terms of changes, you can see the importance of China is something to be carefully monitored (for example in terms of technology and the laser industry), this includes the recognition of the growing relationship between China and Photonics. They are investing in companies, that are in turn, developing their own companies.

What we will have to think about next is how do we find a fair and balanced relationship (technology and economically etc.) with China. They want to have good technology, and Europe has good technology, but we should not sell it too cheap. Therefore, we need to also take advantage; they’ve got the market and we’ve got the technology. I do not know what this ecosystem will look like 10 years from now, however, I do believe it all has to do with people and trust and working together. Although I don’t yet speak fluently in Chinese, I’m trying to make friends and build alliances with other associations. I’m trying to develop a trustful relationship with those partners so we can have, not only a discussion, but try and build a constructive relationship.

Would you agree with the argument that many public authorities do not realise the critical importance of photonics for European competitiveness?

People tend to not know or care about photonics. It’s a shame because I honestly believe that Europe has a chance to position Europe as the place for photonics. At the moment, in general it has not been decided where the main ‘hub’ for photonics is and I would like to position it as Europe. EPIC has grown six times in the last six years. If we continue this growth in the next two years, then factually we will be the photonics association in that the world with most corporate members.

The key point is not that it’s EPIC, but the worlds largest photonics industry association is a European one and that will then help position Europe as the place to be. I honestly believe there is a chance to position us as the place for photonics. If you did a survey, if you had to go for one place to go shopping for photonics, I believe there is a chance that most people would say Europe. I believe there is a chance for that because of all the companies who are leading here.

I don’t think the recognition of the importance of photonics has decreased, instead I think that you just have other technologies which are also emerging as crucial. Therefore, we have to ensure and maintain that photonics continues to be recognised. I have never seen an indication of somebody saying photonics was not important; there is just pressure for many other technologies to be up there. What we have to do is keep our position and remind other industries, that most technologies/applications that are being developed, do in fact require photonics in the background (such as virtual reality and 5G).

What are your thoughts on the Photonics21 PPP and what could other initiatives achieve in this sense?

EPIC and Photonics21 have been lobbying the European commission, parliament and council. We are working together to ensure that photonics remains high on the public authorities agenda and it’s an ongoing process that we started last year (which is in full motion now). We want to continue this photonics public private partnership (PPP), we just have to continue the lobbying with the national ministries, to ensure it stays on the list of PPPs that will be retained.

Looking to the future, how would you like to see EPIC develop?

I hope that EPIC will one day become the world’s largest photonics industry association; not for my own pride, but for the sake of positioning Europe as the leading continent for photonics. I believe that innovation will come by having all of these great European companies working together and developing new technologies, products and components- fuelling the technology pipeline for the decades to come.

The iPhone of photonics doesn’t exist yet, we are far from that, however you see innovations coming in all of the time; we are not running out of ideas. With photonics, it’s developing optical fibres that you can visualise cancerous tumour cells, having blind people being able to see, it’s 3D printing and Virtual Reality which opens a completely new world.
Our priority now is to continue supporting and serving the industry to innovate and access new markets and to build these partnerships worldwide. EPIC will expand its network globally, but its membership will remain European orientated and for the benefit of European companies.

It’s really important for any scientist to keep a close eye on photonics, so they can properly incorporate photonics into whatever they are doing. For example, metrology has evolved thanks to photonics and maybe a lot of these people, whatever they do, can use the equipment. I think the scientific community at large should have a close eye on the development of photonics because its just revolutionising a lot of research
and manufacturing.

Carlos Lee
Director General
EPIC – European Photonics
Industry Consortium
+ 32 473300433

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