Blog post by Dr. Mark Ollila: A night of Vikings in the area of Photonics

In late January I had the opportunity to attend Photonics West in San Francisco (over 23,000 attendees and 5000 presentations!). The area of photonics – as you can guess, is the branch of technology concerned with the properties and transmission of photons, for example in fiber optics. In Finland there are over 200 companies working in the area of Photonics, with  over 50% of the companies having less than 10m euros in revenue and less than 15 employees. Nevertheless the industry is growing rapidly with market growing 20% annually, revenue 27% annually and employee numbers approximately 18% annually. From a Finnish perspective the companies export mainly to Europe (48%) and internally in Finland (44%). As can be seen from the numbers, exporting out of Europe into the US is a great opportunity, hence the strong attendance at Photonics West this year.

Attendance was a blend of Swedish and Finnish companies (though it did feel that the Finns overwhelmed the event). There were local US companies also in attendance, some in the M&A and investment field obviously having a look at what the Nordics could offer. Representing Finland were a range of companies such as Gasera, Nanocopm, Promiceler, VTT, Oplatek, Brighterwave, Senop, Ampliconx, Dispelix, Emberion, Specim, Spectral Engines, KimmyPhotonics, Nextrom, Optofidelity, NomiCam, ReflexKron, and several universities such as Tampere University of Technology and University of Eastern Finland. A strong presence all with pretty much the same goal – how to take Finnish expertise and make it big in the US.

When looking at these companies and photonics competencies in Finland, the emphasis is in optical sensing and imaging, micro and nanophotonics, and lasers and fiber otpics. One area that Finland is leading in is that of waveguide optics (used in VR and AR) with companies like Dispelix and Vuzix and larger companies like Microsoft (Hololens).  This is supported by a strong university and research network with doctoral students combined with the heritage of companies like Nokia which had talented product creation teams in the area of photonics.

During the week there was a Silicon Vikings events held on January 29th on at the DocuSign Executive Center in the heart of San Francisco. I had the opportunity to speak to the Godfather of Photonics, Professor Jyrki Saarinen from the University of Eastern Finland – Head of the Photonics Institute and serial entrepreneur about how he saw the state of the market and the opportunity for Finland.

“Finland has the highest number of photonics companies per capita in Europe, thanks to startup boom and active SME sector. Half of the companies are for export only. US market is large and known for innovation friendly and driven culture. More and more Finnish companies are forgetting their modesty and heading bravely to US market and Photonics West, where all important parties in applied photonics research and industry join together.”

Jyrki Hamalainen, Director of Sales and Marketing at Emberion had a view emphasizing the importance of feedback from customers.

“As we are introducing novel nanotechnology based infrared detectors for spectrometry and machine & night vision, it provides an excellent opportunity to meet customers and collaborators, especially from U.S. It is also an event where the visitors are really subject matter experts so we have a great opportunity to get detailed feedback for our product development.”

Gerard Weiner from Cercatrova Advisors, a boutique M&A firm out of San Francisco had another view of the event.

“It was great to see all the Finnish companies attending.  While it is important for all the reasons one would expect (networking, making industry contacts, strategic reconnaissance, etc.) it also provides the opportunity to go off piste/outside your comfort zone and embrace some randomness.  The elevator pitch that one of the companies did at the event, by pure chance, happened to be the topic of a lunch meeting the next day. The pitch by this company then formed the basis of an intro and contact with a completely different set of potential investors in the US just by virtue of one meeting.  If you multiply that by three days of meetings you are planting multiple opportunity nodes in the biggest commercial market that extend far beyond what you might get staying home.”

From Tampere, Mircea Guinea – Professor at Tampere University of Technology leading the Optoelectronics Research Centre and cofounder of Vexlum Oy gave a long term view of the event.

“I have been growing up with this conference since student time over the past 15 years and for me this event is simply “the must be conference and exhibition of photonics engineering”. I am participating mainly specific conference session and visit exhibition for industry contacts and entrepreneurial networking. Then during the past 3-4 years, I have witnessed the growing presence of Photonics Finland participation, which this year was very visible and lively, so I look forward to that next year even when we should make our presence at the exhibition with Vexlum. Why photonics is important: Besides the personal choice as profession for 20 years now, the importance comes from its capacity of renewal and the large diversity of application providing solution to all aspects of human activity, from energy saving to life saving. “

It is obvious from this perspective that Photonics is of vast importance for new developments in the 21st century. For a startup, coming to the US, it is important to have a clear understanding of what gaps you have and what you need to solve. Through my conversations during the evening, it was clear there is some amazing talent on offer. It was also clear that having a polished story is important. When coming to the US there is a need to be able to explain various topics to the vast range of people you will meet, be it customers, strategics, technology partners, to investors. There is a need to explain how your company is currently funded, how the board is setup, what are your future capital needs, what partners are you looking for, how you fit in the overall supply chain and so forth. With the technology in place, and the story of your company clear, the rest is easy!

Dr. Ollila is helping Kaato, Finland ICT industry’s support community as the Local Promoter in San Diego, USA.

About the author

Dr. Ollila has considerable experience in driving innovation and new technologies. Previously he was at Nokia and Microsoft where he played an integral role in the development and roll-out of Nokia’s services and long-term technology roadmap and innovation portfolio for smart devices leading teams globally.

He was also a core member of the deal team for Nokia and Microsoft in the strategic agreement in 2011. Dr. Ollila is a member of Southern California’s start-up incubator EvoNexus’s selection committee and an expert in residence at UC Irvine Applied Innovation. He also serves as an advisor to multiple companies in entertainment, games and new technology; previously serving on the advisory board of the Game Developers Conference (Mobile) and, until 2010, was a board member of the EMEA Chapter of the Mobile Ecosystem Forum. He was Chairman of the Board of Physics Middleware provider Meqon Research AB (acquired by Ageia and then NVIDIA). Dr. Ollila is on the board of Blind Squirrel Entertainment and Imagine Intelligent Materials; he has previously also held other private and public board positions.

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