TUE Martijn Heck

Martijn Heck is professor of photonic integration at Eindhoven University of Technology.

16 March 2022

High-tech ecosystems are all the rage right now. Unlike their natural counterparts, they need vision, governance and, most of all, patience to flourish.

Recently, I was asked to give my input on the topic “governance models for innovation ecosystems.” If you’ve been part of the European Horizon funding programs, or any national equivalent, such lingo will make perfect sense to you. Governments have stepped up their game, and instead of – initially – aiming for startups and – later on – scaleups, the goals are now often to set up whole ecosystems.

Many countries are trying to cultivate a mix of artificial intelligence, quantum, photonics, semiconductor, space, robotics and other high-tech ecosystems. This requires some sort of monitoring, supervision and management – after all, the taxpayer money is on the line here. But governance of ecosystems, isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Well, yes, it is. In biology, ecosystems are systems of soil, water, weather and climate, where plants and animals live and die together in a sustainable circle of life. The whole point is that no governance is needed. New life is created, old life dies and the ecosystem can shrink or expand, depending on how vibrant it is. The parallels with the economy and society are clear, which makes the term “ecosystem” such a nice and relevant metaphor.

On the other hand, no, it isn’t a contradiction. Economy, technology and society aren’t biology. Timelines can be far shorter. Biology develops along evolutionary timescales, whereas technology develops along revolutionary timescales. It’s fast, it’s competitive, it’s creative destruction. Some direction might be needed to seed and populate these technology ecosystems and grow their inhabitants at ‘unnatural’ speeds. This includes investments, of money but also of knowledge and experience.

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Still, the parallel with biology keeps creeping up on me. In nature, it’s really hard for humans to set up an actual ecosystem. True, we can set up life in a fish tank or a safari park, but that’s not even close to a real ecosystem, which is complex, very complex. Humans tend to mess up ecosystems rather than create them.

Despite all that, I see recent and promising ecosystems emerging in photonics, my own field of expertise: for example, Photondelta in the Netherlands and AIM Photonics in the US. Why are these ecosystems here now, right at the moment that they’re needed, given the global drive for semiconductor independence? Just about every country in the world will probably want them, but only a few have them. Many others are struggling to catch up.

Well, you can’t have an ecosystem now. It requires nurturing the seeds. Seeds that should have been planted a long while ago. The US’ integrated-photonics effort is centered around the Rochester area. That area is famous for two things: Kodak and a university with a world-leading optics program. In the Netherlands, we used to have Philips Optoelectronics, later taken over by Uniphase. And Eindhoven University of Technology, of course. I cite a letter by the Dutch Ministry of Science and Education: “Eindhoven University of Technology will get extra means to strengthen its research in III-V optoelectronics,” as part of a “strategy to strengthen the Dutch semiconductor education and research.” The minister was Deetman, the year was 1986.

So, what are the lessons learned? First, sustained emphasis on education and foundational research is of key importance: people build ecosystems and people need to be trained. And training needs time. Universities are fertile grounds and the main foundation for any ecosystem. As a professor, I might be biased, but don’t think I need to remind anyone about Silicon Valley, Stanford and Berkeley. Secondly, the circle of life spirals ever on, creating companies on the ruins of others. Technology ecosystems aren’t natural and we can’t create them now; they need to be nurtured.

A final thought, for the more electronically oriented semiconductor crowd: ecosystems can very well sustain a new species, if they fit. It’s not in the name, but the Photondelta ecosystem should work perfectly fine for III-V electronics. Just as Deetman intended it.