Accelerating innovation at the speed of light with Luceda Photonics

(06-05-2021) How this Ghent University spin-off plays a key role in the digitization of our society

Photonics - the science and technology of light - plays a vital role in our daily lives, radically transforming many industries, without most of us realizing it. Consider for example optical fibers that provide ultra-fast online communication, laser scanners for self-driving cars or solar cells that generate green energy. Photonics is also a key technology in the development of 5G, data centers and quantum computing. Ghent University has a long tradition in this field, and has already started numerous spin-offs on this topic. This is also the case with Luceda Photonics, which was founded in 2014 by, among others, Pieter Dumon and Martin Fiers. "A new generation of devices is being designed based on our software, and we are quite proud of that." Luceda II.PNG

Light, lux, luce… Luceda

Light particles form the basis of this groundbreaking technology. Photons, as they are also called, are many times faster than electricity. With this technology much more data can be processed much and with less energy consumption. All our daily data traffic is via super-fast optical fiber connections. Photons also play a key role in many other applications: just think of microscopy and rapid screening of pathogens or antibodies, monitoring bridges, roads and machines, and sensors in advanced self-driving cars.

"In all applications where very quickly a lot of bits and bytes on data connections have to be exchanged, or where very sensitive detection of light is required, we are a crucial link." Pieter Dumon, CTO of Luceda Photonics

"People want to miniaturize systems by putting everything on a chip. On the one hand to keep “size, weight and power” under control, and on the other hand to enable completely new applications. A good example is the subcutaneous sensor for diabetes patients from Indigo, also a Ghent University spin-off. It is precisely in that process of miniaturization that Luceda Photonics makes the difference. We are the bridge between optical chip designers, who transfer or process information with light instead of electrons, and the manufacturers of these chips," tells Pieter Dumon, CTO of Luceda Photonics.
The letters “EDA” from Luceda stand for “Electronic Design Automation” or, in human language, a software tool to design chips. "With our software, designers can not only design their chips, but at the same time simulate the behavior of their chips. In this way you reduce the chance of errors and you can shorten the design phase of those chips considerably. When you know that it quickly takes half a million euros and 6 months to produce a chip, it makes a big difference economically if you can reduce that design and testing cycle," explains Martin Fiers, product manager of Luceda Photonics.
"That flexibility to test workflows and to scale things is what sets our software apart. This agility leaves a lot of room for innovation because you can try out, adjust and retest new applications more quickly. With our expertise, we take the time to collaborate with our customers, to tackle their problems, so that they can focus 100% on their end product. Photonics may be a crucial part of this end product, but there is a lot more to complete product development of course," says Martin.

The new gold

These optical chips, which use light particles to amplify the electronic signals on traditional microchips are now regarded as the 'new gold'. Today it is still a niche market on an international scale, but one with growth rates of 25 to 30% per year. It is the fastest growing market in China and this sector is also on the rise in the United States and Europe. The EU has designated photonics as one of the five technologies with the greatest economic potential.
Did Pieter and Martin themselves see the potential of their software from the start? "There was a long run-up to converting the technology into today's Luceda Photonics. The software package for drawing the chip, created in the department of Professor Roel Baets, dates from 2002. Wim Bogaerts, co-founder of Luceda and now a professor in the photonics group, sowed the seeds for the software for designing and drawing of photonics chips. He expanded it into a powerful package with many possibilities. As a result, there was also demand from other universities and a debate arose internally around the final goal: to develop the software commercially or to make it open source available. At that moment we chose to make our software open source available. At that time, it felt like the right decision. We were able to recruit a developer to further expand it and, above all, to support it from within the photonics group, "says Pieter.
"This changed in 2013. Martin had developed a simulator during his PhD. The combination of those two packages, the simulator and the design software, was not available on the market. Each of us also had a commercial drive. But to take the leap to entrepreneurship, we did need a helping hand. Network organizations, your own department,… play an important role in this. We are grateful that our supervisors, Professor Roel Baets and Professor Peter Bienstman, and by extension the department, gave us the space to further develop our business plans," Pieter adds.

There is a time and a place for everything

"If you set up a spin-off from a university, you still have to make a switch in your mindset. At a university, the ultimate goal is to focus on your niche, to discover new things. There it is good that you function in that mode. In a company you work from a different attitude. You have to listen to your customers to convince them of your product or solution, otherwise you will not have any income. You have to realize that those two modes exist and use them at the right time," Martin explains.
"With six founders, we formed a small SME from the start, and we had to do everything we could to achieve sales as quickly as possible. You have to define roles and define job packages. Since the six of us sat in one office together, we all kept up to date with everything. As your business grows, you have to hand over parts of your original roles to new colleagues. You have to be able to let go and have confidence that they will find the best solution at that moment and trust that each team member will take their responsibility," Martin clarifies.
"With 19 employees and recently setting up a first subsidiary in Shanghai, you can't help but let go. Although you have to ensure that everyone is and remains up to date on the story that you want to tell. The more and the better our entire team understands the standards and values ​​of our company and the context of our customers, the more we do the right thing on our own. At the same time, the growth of your company is an opportunity to strengthen the complementarity of your team. Knowing your own weaknesses and recruiting people to supplement and strengthen them is very important. "

"The technical aspect is great, but the interpersonal aspect is often the most challenging." Martin Fiers, product manager of Luceda Photonics

Entrepreneurial impulses from the university

"For someone who wants to do something based on research, there are the necessary impulses at the university to stimulate entrepreneurship," according to Pieter. "Just think of the IOF business developers, who, together with UGent TechTransfer, form the link between the academic and industrial world, and are therefore able to properly assess commercial ideas. There is funding to further develop ideas, you can follow courses, ... We have also made use of this in our start-up process, for example through StarTT project financing and funding from the European ERC Proof-of-Concept. But, of course, you have to take the real plunge yourself. "
"I am quite a chaotic person myself; I am often in a creative mood and like to generate new ideas to function optimally. So I loved doing research. Then my wife commented that it was worth trying something different. “You have been so passionate about your research all these years now. Take your chance to make something of it outside the university too, to set up a company. You can then evaluate whether you like it or not.” And she was right," Martin concludes.
Any final advice from these entrepreneurial researchers? "Don't be afraid to take the plunge. Even though there are many uncertainties or you are sometimes discouraged along the way. Call on your network. There are many people who want to help you succeed."

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