Lack of national strategy hampers Canada's strengths in photonics R&D and commerce

Mark Henderson
March 4, 2016

Canada's must move quickly to restore its once-vaunted leadership role in photonics R&D and commerce, says a new report from the Canadian Photonics Industry Consortium (CPIC). The report recommends a national photonics strategy and a reorientation of existing funding mechanisms to give industry a greater voice in aligning research with emerging market trends in key sectors where photonics plays a major role.

More than a year in the making, the report is the first major update on the photonics sector since 2008. It provides revealing baseline data on the size of the industry, its underpinning research concentrations, sectoral strengths and global comparative ranking.

"Statistics Canada does not provide any data so we had to dig to get them and identify where we should focus to continue to have a say in the world," says Dr Robert Corriveau, CPIC's president and executive director. "Aligning the money we now spend would be a good first step because right now it's spread all over."

Canadian photonics companies number about 400 and generate sales of $4.6 billion annually with a 10% growth rate. At the same time, Canada imports $6.4 billion worth of photonics goods and is slipping behind the US, Europe and Asia for a greater piece of the photonics market, estimated at $650 billion globally.

The report examines the potential for photonics in Canada on a sector-by-sector basis (see chart), providing each with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis.


For the aerospace industry, the report concludes that while many existing photonic technologies can already respond to the aerospace sector's needs, those capabilities should be advertised to end-user associations and companies or run the risk of the sector buying its photonic solutions internationally. It also notes that the explosion of unmanned arial vehicles provides an ideal opportunity to test light-weight and low-power photonic technologies.


Links between the automotive sector are weak to non-existent, posing a challenge to capturing the benefits of closer industry-academic collaboration in the areas of information and communication technologies, advanced manufacturing, imaging, sensing, monitoring, signage and lighting. Greater emphasis on collaborative ties along the lines of Germany's Fraunhofer model would be helpful. Canada has a strong pool of photonic-skilled talent but it's small and needs to be augmented by foreign workers. The lack of anchor companies in Canada also makes it difficult for smaller photonics firms to gain traction in the automotive sector.

Communications & Microelectronics

Canada has good linkages between industry, university and R&D centres, resulting in a robust photonics ecosystem. However, greater emphasis must be placed on selecting niche strengths, selling the Canadian brand and using the country's lower R&D costs to attract more multinational firms. Corriveau says the National Research Council's Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre, CMC Microsystems and the MiQro Innovation Collaborative Center in Sherbrooke QC provide strong pillars that must be leveraged.

Defence & Security

Border surveillance is an area where photonics can add value but the report says the status quo is a significant threat to the industry which must increase R&D and maintain Canada's manufacturing capability. It also notes that other countries are investing at a far higher level than Canada and the recent sale of some key photonics-based firms to foreign buyers threatens the sector's employment base.

Areas OF Canadian



Communications and Microelectronics

Defence and Security

Energy & Transport

Health and Medical

Natural Resources


The need for a national photonics strategy is the report's highest priority recommendation. As a member-supported organization, CPIC intends to lead the process for its development. Corriveau says he hopes the report will give the sector visibility, attracting more members to ensure there are "the right people around the table".

"Canada has several strong photonics clusters so we'll try to re-direct them to be part of CPIC, linking local activities with end users," he says. "The first objective is to form a photonics strategy group. We will develop a plan for this at our next board meeting in March.

Corriveau has already met with officials at the National Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and plans to meet with minister and officials at the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development in April. setting the stage for a possible budget request in 2017.


SWOT * for Photonics in Canada


  • Photonics research capability and infrastructure with R&D centres, universities and colleges
  • Knowledge base and research infrastructure
  • National facilities focused on photonic technology transfer
  • Image sensors and vision systems
  • High-powered, short-pulse fibre lasers
  • Specialty fibres, remote sensing, spectral imaging, etc.


  • No national strategy for photonics
  • Few large receptors for technology
  • Limited photonic training of engineers and technicians
  • Large companies are usually subsidiaries of foreign entities
  • Difficulty in raising capital for start-ups
  • Lack of domestic suppliers of key photonics components (high-power lasers and systems)


  • Growing energy and environment markets
  • Needs in aerospace, defence and security, energy, medical and natural resources sectors
  • Green and solar technologies producers and user communities
  • Development of regional photonic clusters
  • The ITAR**Free market and the use of the Industrial and Technological Benefits Program


  • Global competition
  • Unfocussed government support of R&D
  • Too few students in technology
  • Other industries (e.g., resource sector) remain Increased partnering between photonic more attractive for investment
  • Competition from other technologies

* SWOT - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

** ITAR - International Traffic in Arms Regulations

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