Completing the chain

Mar 1st, 2003

The Scottish Optoelectronics Industry developed from defence companies, chiefly Ferranti (BAE SYSTEMS) and Barr & Stroud (Thales Optronics). These firms employed a laser for range-finding in the mid-1960s.

Around the same time, Scottish universities started to take an interest in the emerging science of optoelectronics through key appointments to Physics and Electrical Engineering and Electronics departments. Now, out of the 13 universities in Scotland there is at least one department in all but one of them with an optoelectronics research interest. As uses for lasers beyond the military were identified, this research base saw the first evidence of commercialisation; Edinburgh Instruments was created as a spin out from Heriot-Watt University in 1971 followed by Microlase (Coherent Scotland) making laser equipment for research and measurement.

Recently, a new wave of companies, spun out of both universities and other businesses, have started to appear and concentrate more on components than on equipment. Figure 1 shows when companies were formed in the main areas of optoelectronics in which the Scottish companies operate: displays, lasers, sensors/imaging and fibre-optic communications.

In 1998 companies started commercialising the strong research base in fibre-optic communications. A spurt of VC investment occurred, as shown in Figure 2. It is encouraging that, apart from the peak in 2000 (a reflection of the global trend), investment in Scottish optoelectronics is increasing steadily. This reflects the fact that optoelectronics is a universal enabling technology that can be applied to most markets, and that companies are responding to that imperative.

The basis of start-up performance in Scotland is the strong research base, but the commercialisation of research has long been a focus of the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise. The Scottish Optoelectronics Association (SOA) has developed a strategy to increase optoelectronic product revenues in line with global growth rates, implementing the support required to nurture companies following the Creation Chain — taking research through product development to market.

The latest manifestation can be found in two ventures that have recently been announced: the funding of a Packaging Centre, focused on the encapsulation of opto components; and a Communications and Digital Media Intermediate Technology Institute, concentrating on creating intellectual property through funding pre-competitive research. Both these ventures are an indication of the on-going support of this sector by the local government agencies.

Historically, the local supply chain has been strong in military equipment manufacturing and, more recently, commercial component design. But this disjointed supply chain results in virtually all sales leaving Scotland, highlighting another area on which the SOA is focusing. The focus on export has, however, led to the development of strong international links. The SOA is a founder member of the International Optoelectronics Association Forum, which includes Japan, USA, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore. Also, the SOA has national links through the UK Consortium of Photonics and Optics and European Association links to Germany and France.

Chris Gracie
Chief Executive, Scottish
Optoelectronics Association

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