Light shines on lasers

An organization representing the photonics industry is changing its structure to give Canada a leg up in what the group calls “the next trillion-dollar” high-tech sector.

The Canadian Photonics Consortium (CPC) – a trade organization representing firms working with lasers – has aligned itself more closely with private-sector players. The group’s board used to consist only of institutional organizations such as the National Research Council (NRC) and Industry Canada. Now the CPC has invited company executives to the table – senior suits from such firms as Agilent Technologies Canada Inc., the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and EXFO Electro-Optical Engineering Inc., a Quebec City-based fibre-optic diagnostic company.

According to Gerald Lynch, the CPC’s current chairman, the move towards industry leadership is indicative of the mandate: to make Canada the place for photonics business.

But in order for Canada to win the title of photonics champ the CPC “cannot be institutionally led,” Lynch said. “There’s no credibility with government in trying to make policy directives and funding decisions.”

To that end, Lynch, president of a provincial commercialization group called Photonics Research Ontario (PRO), will step down as chairman and let Omur Sezerman take the position this summer. Sezerman is president and CEO of Ottawa-based fibre-optic component manufacturer OZ Optics Ltd.

The CPC plans to lobby the federal government and make it see the light: if Canada does not support its budding photonics industry with improved research and development dollars, as well as better university funding and stronger patent protection, other countries will take control of the industry. Lynch said Germany, South Korea and the United States are spending millions of dollars to ensure the health of their photonics sectors. Canada, by contrast, is lagging.

“We have not kept pace with infrastructure support. A decade ago, the business of photonics in Canada was measured in the $100 million range. The infrastructure was probably $4 to $5 million a year.” Infrastructure, Lynch explained, applies to things like support for universities, patent protection of new ideas and incubating new companies. “The business is now measured as several billion dollars a year, but we’re still spending $5 million in infrastructure support.”

The CPC wants to make sure the feds understand how important that support is – and convince the government that photonics itself is an important industry. Lynch said the sector could be the next big thing among high-tech endeavours.

“Photonics is the next trillion-dollar industry,” he said, adding later, “In this stage of the technology, we’re really limited by our imagination.”

For example, PRO has developed a laser that emits light pulses with only a miniscule fraction of a second between them. It also pumps power that matches “the whole of the North American electricity grid,” Lynch said.

“We don’t know what to do with it.”

No, the PRO is not likely to attempt world domination with its light-emitting capabilities. Lynch said the group is trying to suss out a more benign use for it.

“We’re looking at it for bone surgery and…machining materials down to the sub-micron level.”

Education is key, he said. The CPC stands behind a new learning initiative at Algonquin College in Ottawa and Niagara College in Niagara Falls, Ont. that teaches students to become photonic technologists.

One new CPC board member figures the group’s cause has to do with business success. Alan Lolacher, president of Agilent Technologies Canada, said his company joined because it makes good business sense to “encourage and harness the intellectual property that will help us in our business and help our customers in their business.”

Lolacher said he expects the CPC to help transform Canada into a photonics leader.

Chris Umiastowski, an analyst with Yorkton Securities Inc., a technology investment bank in Toronto, said groups such as this can foster support for fledgling sectors; he believes the CPC could make a difference in the photonics sector. But it’s also instructive that the CPC created an industry-led mandate. After all, compared to institutions, “the corporations that have profits or losses to worry about are going to take a bit more swift action.”

For more information about the CPC, its new board and its gung-ho mandate, consult the group’s Web site,