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  • Writer's pictureMathieu Guerville

Dynamics of Innovation in Optics & Photonics.

Interview with Tom Hausken, Senior Advisor at The Optical Society (OSA)

Ahead of the SPIE Optics+Photonics event in San Diego, Tradespace reached out to Dr. Tom Hausken, Senior Advisor at The Optical Society (OSA). Bringing more than 30 years of experience spanning the research, government, and corporate sectors, Dr Hausken holds a MS and a PhD in EE from UCSB and frequently writes, speaks and educates people about the industry.

Find Tradespace at the SPIE Optics+Photonics San Diego event.

Tradespace: How do you perceive the general attitude towards intellectual property in the photonics market?

Dr. Hausken: IP is a difficult animal, it’s often just the realm of legal professionals, and it’s really hard to understand well enough unless you’re trained into it. Figuring out what is a good patent and what isn’t, is often beyond the skillset of engineers.

As an industry, especially in the US and Europe where the applications are less consumer-oriented, there’s a balance between IP and just engineering where the innovation is more custom to a subset of customers. In Asia with displays and other consumer applications being manufactured there’s certainly more focus on patenting things for defensive reasons as much as for licensing reasons.

Tradespace: Compared to other disciplines, how would you describe the rate of innovation in the optics and photonics world?

Dr. Hausken: I think we’re a fairly innovative industry, but on the IP front it isn’t the wild west that some industries can be, with accusations of theft and aggressive poaching. It’s also important to note that a lot of our innovations are rooted in some public domain knowledge about the fundamentals of optical science, so the innovation isn’t as much breaking new barriers as it is getting closer to the known theoretical concepts.

There’s also a lot of innovation that isn’t about launching a new product or devices, but rather some manufacturing or fabrication methods. The work done in Arizona to produce 8 meter mirrors, or the technologies that power the largest laser in the world at Lawrence Livermore National Lab are examples of that.

There are even areas in which some considered outdated or less than optimal processes are still the best and innovating for the sake of innovating may not make sense. Dye lasers are such an example, using organic dye isn’t the most futuristic technique, but it is still sold into niche applications


Tradespace: What is the next big breakthrough or technology platform that propel the industry forward?

The displays category has seen a ton of innovation, and some notable IP, with the advent of foldable OLED and the introduction of micro-LED, but even outside of these well publicized areas there is innovation across all categories of the optics and photonics world.

Ironically a technology that is getting a lot of press at the moment is LIDAR but fundamentally it is several decades old, the underlying idea is long in the public domain but the new applications have breathed new interest, and funding, into it.

“Seventy or so LIDAR companies have appeared in just a few years and it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t at least partially be based on largely the same technology”

Another potentially transformative technology is integrated photonics, using wafers instead of fibers or lenses to deliver photonic functionality with a lesser concern for the packaging of the device within its end application.

A bigger buzzword and even higher potential area would be quantum photonics. However it is a it is more speculative at this point in terms of how much of the potential will be realized.

Tradespace: What segment of the market do you see has being most evolving and changing?

The industry doesn’t always move in big strides, sometimes innovation brings great progress that doesn’t reach critical mass or remains limited in scope so it is hard to predict. In some cases outsiders with different needs can suddenly bring outsized interest and funding to an area and end up driving costs down and innovation up in our industry as a result. These days it could be Google, Samsung or automakers, suddenly driving up a technology faster than our industry possibly could..

For instance, smartphone cameras are largely to thank for the improvements and switch to CMOS from CCD in image sensors. It’s the lithography at scale, that the consumer electronic industry pushed hard, that unlocked these technologies true potential.

Nevertheless, across all sectors there’s a valley of death problem, our community is sitting on billions of dollars worth of IP that needs engineering and execution to reach the market but very little actually does. NIH alone invests $30B or more and gets limited commercialization, our industry is likely equally held back by the process of converting good science to good businesses.

Tradespace: Where do you find information to keep up with what other companies or universities are doing, and what are your blind spots you'd like more visibility into?

I think the industry functions like Silicon Valley, with clusters of knowledge where universities, CEOs, funding, and large companies share physical space and learn from connecting. But beyond that you can find knowledge spreading in events, in publications, in the trade press, and via organizations such as ours (OSA), there are fewer barriers than ever in spreading knowledge.

Despite new challenges such as the spread of poor quality science in new, unreputable journals, in the science world, we are in a great position to keep innovating.


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1 Comment

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