Paul van Gerven
11 May

The Dutch government has given the go-ahead for Photondelta’s ambitious plan aimed at securing a major role for the Netherlands in the integrated-photonics industry. What’s the strategy?

If Photondelta’s plan pans out, the Netherlands will be able to welcome another national champion in the next decade. It won’t be a single outfit with a 200+-billion-euro market capitalization like ASML, but the string of Dutch integrated-photonics companies will be a force to be reckoned with – very much like the Veldhoven-based equipment maker. Collectively, they aim to grab a global market share of as much as 30 percent in the budding industry.

The Dutch government has rallied behind the ambition and (conditionally) approved 470 million euros in funding from the National Growth Fund (NGF). Topped up with 700 million euros from companies, research organizations and investors, the Photondelta ecosystem sets out on a six-year journey that will render the Netherlands a global integrated-photonics design and manufacturing hub.

The strategy consists of three main components. One: set up a top-class library of design building blocks that can be combined to create photonic integrated circuits for a wide range of applications. Two: scale up operations to manufacture and package chips based on these building blocks. And three: foster the organizations (especially startups and scale-ups) that generate demand for photonic integrated circuits, as well as the knowledge institutes that take the technology to higher levels.

Bits&Chips talked to Jorn Smeets, Photondelta’s chief marketing officer, about the necessity of public funding, the feasibility of the plan and the rationale of the strategy behind it.

According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), which has reviewed all NGF proposals, it’s “not clear why the Netherlands should be a front-runner” in integrated photonics. After all, “technology can be imported.” So, why should we become front-runner, and why would taxpayer’s money be involved?

Smeets: “It would be a shame if the expertise that our universities and companies have built up over the past decades goes to waste. We’re presented with a great opportunity not only to add to our country’s earning capacity but also to contribute our technological sovereignty, which is at the top of the agendas of national and EU public officials these days.”

“We need public money to capitalize on our head start in knowledge and commercial activities because access to deep-tech funding in Europe is limited. We’re very happy that the government doesn’t consider industrial policy to be a dirty word anymore. If we’re the ones to kickstart the global integrated-photonics industry, we’ll secure a dominant position in it. Otherwise, we risk being overtaken by other parts of the world.”

You mentioned technological sovereignty. Is it a given that photonic integrated circuits (PICs) will become as strategically important as electronic ICs?

“You shouldn’t think of those as separate entities. Integrated photonics adds to electronics and electronics is needed to drive PICs. As the junior partner, integrated photonics will slowly morph into the mature semiconductor industry. In that respect, what we’re trying to do here is to strengthen the Dutch and European semiconductor ecosystem.”

Photondelta Jorn Smeets
Photondelta’s CMO Jorn Smeets. Credit: Photondelta

This has become a major priority of the European Commission, which presented the European Chips Act earlier this year to give the EU’s semiconductor activities a shot in the arm. It seems nobody is talking about integrated photonics, though.

“Integrated photonics is explicitly included in the definition of ‘semiconductor technologies’ in the Act, but the details are still being worked out. It’s a distinct possibility that the Dutch government will be able to earmark the integrated-photonics NGF funding as support for semiconductor activities, as the Commission is urging member states to do.”

Isn’t it naive to think that it’s possible to build – and keep – an industry here? Companies go where the money is, or the customers, or the talent.

“Integrated photonics will become a big, global industry. Given that kind of dynamics, it would indeed be naive to suppose that all our current and future champions will remain Dutch. That’s why our focus is on the strategic assets of integrated photonics: a library of generic design building blocks and the foundries to manufacture the chips composed of those building blocks. Most of our customers won’t be Dutch, just like most customers of TSMC aren’t Taiwanese.”

“We want as many companies as possible to embrace integrated photonics, and turn to us when they want to have their PICs manufactured and their photonic modules assembled. That’s our focus: to become a global hub for integrated photonics, where the world has its integrated-photonics technology manufactured. And possibly designed as well, since it’s likely that design companies take root in the vicinity of foundries.”

The Dutch ecosystem has manufacturing capability for two integrated-photonics platforms, indium phosphide (InP) and silicon nitride (SiN). What about silicon photonics (SiP) and, perhaps more importantly, electronics (CMOS)?

“In integrated photonics, no single technology can do it all; they all have strengths and weaknesses and they all need driving electronics. That’s why the Dutch ecosystem must build bridges to SiP and CMOS technology, which is why Imec and Holst Center feature prominently in the NGF proposal. This ecosystem has to invest in hybrid and heterogeneous integration techniques to build higher-level assemblies that optimally combine different platforms, performance and cost-wise. To do that, we’ll need to forge strategic partnerships for SiP and CMOS manufacturing – that’s actually an important condition for the funding to be finalized. Photondelta is currently in talks with several potential partners.”

One of the deliverables in your proposal is to get 200 startups going by 2030. That seems like an impossible task.

“First of all, these startups don’t all have to be based in the Netherlands. We’re going to support budding integrated-photonics entrepreneurs wherever they are. By providing them with know-how, sharing our network and possibly participating in seed funding, we’ll develop the market, generating future manufacturing volumes for our foundries.”

“Secondly, Photondelta isn’t going to be hands-on involved with every single startup. We’ll leave the venture building to incubators and other partners. Just recently, we signed a partnership with HightechXL, for example. More collaborations around the globe will follow.”

Main picture credit: Photondelta