At Europe’s Photonics21 gathering, “technological sovereignty” was this year’s catchphrase

01 September 2022
Matthew Peach
Photonics21 Chairman Lutz Aschke
Photonics21 Chairman Lutz Aschke

At this year’s gathering of Photonics21, the platform that represents the photonics community within the European Union (EU), technological sovereignty was a key theme. In fact, nary a speaker addressed the 7–8 July gathering in Brussels, Belgium—the political heart of Europe— without uttering the phrase.

The reasons for this emphasis have become starkly obvious: Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and its impact on Europe’s economy and precarious energy position; the longstanding problem of supply chain shortages, especially chips; and the growing pressure to bring component manufacturing back to the continent.

In the face of these global crises—and following a two-year hiatus because of the covid-19 pandemic—the urgent task for Photonics21 community members at the two-day meeting was to deliberate which photonics projects to back, and how to build resilience into Europe’s vulnerable industry.

Photonics21 was formed in December 2005 to bring together the growing community of photonics professionals in Europe. It has been tireless in promoting photonics and is widely considered to have persuaded the European Commission (EC) in 2009 to recognize photonics as one of six key enabling technologies alongside nanotechnology, microelectronics, advanced materials, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing.

But Photonics21 is more than an industry association; it also has the role of helping develop a strategic research agenda for the EC funding programs, the latest of which is Horizon Europe, which began in 2021 and runs through 2027 with a budget of €95 billion.

The general aims of Horizon Europe are to tackle the impacts of climate change, help achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, and to boost competitiveness and growth of the EU and associated countries, such as the UK, Switzerland, and Norway.

The EC and Photonics21 have partnered to further develop the photonics sector over the course of the program, with the former agreeing to invest at least €480 million in photonics research and innovation activities.

In his opening address at the July meeting, Photonics21 Chairman Lutz Aschke outlined the state of the photonics community on the continent, and the importance of the decision-making ahead. He noted that photonics companies in the EU had been able to expand from €76 billion in sales in 2015 to €103 billion in sales in 2019—an average annual growth rate of seven percent. “This is not only a multiple of the growth rate of the EU’s entire gross domestic product, but photonics also exceeds the rates of other key technologies, such as medical technology, with growth of 4.9 percent,” he said.

Europe’s photonics market is currently served by some 5,000 primarily medium-sized companies. These are extremely competitive enterprises that have created more than 30,000 new high-tech jobs in recent years. Globally, the European photonics industry is the second largest market after China.

“Competition is getting fiercer,” Aschke added. “And outside of Europe there are often very high government subsidies. According to one study from 2017, the Chinese central government alone has subsidized its local photonics industry with at least one billion euros. And that doesn’t even include regional subsidies.”

Aschke, who is managing director of the Mahr Group, a global metrology systems developer, reiterated the importance of the ever-evolving photonics sector in an interview with the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “Photonics remains a key enabler for Europe’s ambitions in digitization, including Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence, smart farming, 5G, personalized medicine, and many other applications,” he said. “As an enabling technology, it underpins critical elements of strategic value chains, from automotive and medical to aerospace and quantum computing.”

Aschke was concerned with much more than photo-evangelism. His role was to deliver a state-of-the-EU-type update, as well as coordinate the outputs of Photonics21 working groups. These breakout meetings of 30 or so interested parties were tasked with considering hot topics in photonics subsectors such as digital infrastructure, manufacturing, health, and security and defense.

Financing of innovative photonics startups and SMEs was another emphasis of the meeting. Guest speakers included Hermann Hauser, serial entrepreneur, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, and initiator of the European Innovation Council; Brendan McDonagh, senior advisory at the European Investment Bank, who gave insights into financing gaps and opportunities; and the EC’s Werner Steinhögl, who provided the latest thoughts on the European Chips Act, and how it will impact the continent’s photonics ecosystem.

Workshop Sessions were the focus of the meeting’s second day. The intended goal was to initiate the process towards a new, multiannual strategic research and innovation agenda for the second half of Horizon Europe. It will be much like the 2020 version, “New Horizons: Securing Europe’s technological Sovereignty through Photonics.” Changes in the political, technical, and socio-economic framework conditions have made a reworked version necessary.

Follow-up workshops to define the chapters of the new research and innovation agenda will be held in the Fall of 2022.

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Matthew Peach is Editor in Chief of

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