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05 August 2012

Investing in R&D: Europe's direction for photonics

Horizon 2020 aims for R&D invesment in the EU.
Governments in Asia, Europe, North America, and elsewhere are finding new ways to prioritize their efforts to support optics technologies and industries and to advance their own national competitiveness and economic success.

A recent article in the SPIE Professional magazine surveyed the latest developments around the world. This post on European policy is part of a series that borrows from the magazine's report.

A previous post focused on what is happening in Asia; next up is North America, where an update to the "Harnessing Light" report of 1998 is expected to be released by mid-August.

The European Commission (EC) is negotiating the budget details of its landmark Horizon 2020 program, unveiled last November, which aims to invest €80 billion for research and innovation between 2014 and 2020.

Photonics was named one of Europe’s five key enabling technologies (along with advanced materials, biotechnology, micro and nano-electronics, and nanotechnology) in 2009, and one of the primary goals of Horizon 2020 is to support, master, and deploy these technologies. To that end, the program will spend approximately €13.8 billion to expand its industrial capabilities and promote international investment and competitiveness.

Other components of Horizon 2020 include efforts to simplify funding procedures for governmental grants, create new public-private partnerships, and expand of high-risk financing for small- and medium-size companies. (See "Horizon 2020" in the April 2012 issue of SPIE Professional.)

“Horizon 2020 represents a real break from the past,” says Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science. “We went back to the drawing board to radically rethink how we invest in research and innovation. The program focuses on supporting the best research and innovation ideas that provide major business opportunities and change people’s lives for the better."

Thierry Van der Pyl, director of Components and Systems within the Information Society and Media Directorate of the EC, framed the many promising opportunities for photonics presented by Horizon 2020 at SPIE Photonics Europe earlier this year.

Partnerships and centers of excellence

Horizon 2020 developments are taking place at the same time EU member countries are undertaking their own efforts to support optics and photonics. Spain, Germany, and England have launched funding programs to establish and support scientific research centers.
  • Photonics21, the European technology platform, is working to ensure photonics receives appropriate attention. The organization last year pledged €5.6 billion in private support for a proposed Photonics Public-Private Partnership with the EC.
  • The German government is supporting photonics research and development with a €100 million-per-year budget for photonics R&D. That support, announced in June 2011, is set to be matched by commercial partners. Germany aims to create 20,000 new jobs by 2015, with funding expected to continue through 2020.
  • Spain has pledged to distribute €1 million per year for four years to eight Spanish research centers, three of which have a focus on photonics. The program is intended to expand to another 32 centers in the next four years.
  • Similarly, the UK has tasked its Technology Strategy Board (TSB) with the creation of technology and innovation centers called “Catapult Centers” to close the gap between technology concepts and commercialization. A taskforce within the TSB named electronics, photonics, and electrical systems as one of its focus areas, recognizing that these systems underpin economic activity in healthcare, energy, transport, and environmental sustainability. Although photonics was not chosen for a dedicated CatapultCenter, the TSB has a £50 million pot of funding for photonics, sensor systems, smart grids, and related technologies over the next several years. In addition, photonics technologies will be featured to some degree in several of the areas that will become Catapult Centers, such as high-volume manufacturing, satellite applications, transport systems, and the connected digital economy. The board also created a three-year strategic plan, similar to the EC’s blueprint for Horizon 2020, to reduce barriers to funding, increase governmental and private sector partnerships, and support high-risk ventures.

Taking the pulse

Looking at the photonics sector at mid-year, the industry news website optics.org observed recently that operational cutbacks seen in some sectors reflect the reversal of the optimistic mood at the beginning of 2012. At the same time, investment in new production technologies relating to automobile and consumer electronics manufacturing appears robust, and is proving to be a major boost for some laser companies and for companies positioned to meet an apparently insatiable demand for flat-panel displays and a strong market for LEDs.

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