Photonics foundry is National Research Council’s top priority as cluster development strategy continues to unfold
June 13, 2001
The National Research Council (NRC) is rallying community and private sector support as it shifts its efforts into high gear to secure government funding this year for its Canadian Photonics Fabrication Facility (CPFC). To be located in Ottawa, the photonics foundry and training centre requires an initial investment of $45 million over five years, and the timing of the initiative means its commercial and technological impacts could be colossal.
CPFC will provide Canada’s thriving photonics sector with a desperately needed prototyping facility and a training component to ensure the industry has the skilled personnel it needs in an environment of rapid growth. Without the services the CPFC is offering, the likelihood of Canada losing its leadership position in photonics will grow with every passing month.
“We are at a juncture with photonics just like we were with integrated photonic devices and wavelength division multiplexing several years ago. The convergence of microelectronics, optoelectronics and communications is happening,” says Dr Richard Normandin, DG of NRC’s Institute for Microstructural Sciences. “We were ahead of our time when we first proposed this two years ago and now the time has come.”
Normandin says once the initial funding phase is complete, foundry activities will be largely self-funding, except those in which research for the public good and training are involved.
“De-risking of technologies is key as it will give firms a competitive edge,” he says, adding that other nations are also beginning to explore the need for foundries to support their own photonics sectors.
There’s every indication that the federal government is ready to approve the foundry proposal. Officials from the Finance and Industry departments have let it be known that the government is willing to continue supporting NRC’s cluster strategy. Clusters were referred to in the most recent Speech from the Throne and photonics was mentioned as a strategic priority in the Liberal Party’s most recent Red Book, issued prior to last fall’s election.
Canada’s photonics sector is spread over four urban centres — Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto and Vancouver. Ottawa has the largest concentration of industrial activity and a formidable arsenal of applied research centred around the NRC’s expertise in photonics, microelectronics and information technology. Placing the foundry in Ottawa will have a significant clustering impact on the region, a reality that has ruffled some feathers in Quebec City which has undeniable strengths as well. Quebec City’s research strengths are resident in the National Optics Institute, the Univ of Laval’s Centre for Optics and the Defence Research Establishment Valcartier, while the Univ of Laval serves as the headquarters for the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations, a Network of Centres of Excellence.
OTTAWA THE LOGICAL CHOICE
While Quebec City boasts Canada’s greatest critical mass in photonics basic research, NRC argues that Ottawa’s larger concentration of private sector photonics firms and NRC’s existing research infrastructure make Ottawa the logical choice, as well as the fastest and the cheapest. But funding an Ottawa-based facility is politically sensitive, given NRC’s huge presence in the region, despite the fact that most recent new NRC initiatives have gone elsewhere.
“The CPFC is really focused on technology transfer, acquisition and development in the private sector, and roughly half of the photonics companies in the country are in this region. It would take longer and be far more expensive to build it outside the region where the SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) are located,” says a NRC official. “I’m not sure Quebec is completely on side, as they see this as a way to develop a technology cluster and encourage economic growth.”
But the NRC is solidly behind Ottawa and has effectively rallied the new city government, industry and the Ontario Centre for Research Innovation to keep the pressure on the politicians to approve funding. In 1999, Ottawa established the Ottawa Photonics Cluster, which was quickly recognized as the voice of the industry. It was also endorsed by The Ottawa Partnership (TOP) as one of seven established industry clusters upon which the city’s future economic performance depends.
The CPFC has also received support from organizations like the Canadian Microelectronics Corp (CMC), which would benefit greatly by having a photonics prototyping facility nearby. If approved, CMC would provide remote access to the foundry for students and researchers associated with the organization. Photonics Research Ontario (PRO) has also climbed aboard, signing a memorandum of understanding with NRC for collaboration in the areas of photonics and bio-photonics. If CPFC is funded and built, PRO would benefit by being part of a state-of-the-art facility, while bringing additional scientific expertise to the national photonics endeavour.
Area universities have also jumped into the photonics fray, submitting photonics proposals to the the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Support is also forthcoming from the Canadian Photonics Consortium, which hopes to complete a technology road map by August. The road map will include current data on photonics technology, investment, infrastructure and education — all relevant to the NRC bid for the foundry.
But CPFC’s value lies primarily in the competitive advantage it offers to photonics companies, regardless of size. For small firms and start-ups, the foundry will provide low-volume production runs, proof-of-concept designs and prototyping and design assistance. Medium-sized companies will be able to mount low-volume production runs to test manufacturing and design concepts, while large firms will use the facility to test novel production runs without disrupting their commercial production schedules.
Large firms are the most likely to benefit from CPFC’s training component, which includes remote and on-site access for researchers and students to graduate and technical training programs. Other programs are planned for visiting researchers and industrial guest workers, as well as summer school training for high-achieving students.
In recent months, the nascent Ottawa photonics sector has exploded, with a flood of venture capital financing directed towards firms such as Tropic Networks, Metrophotonics, Zenastra Photonics, Zucotto Wireless, Silicon Access and SiGe Microsystems. NRC documentation shows that these firms alone have attracted nearly $340 million in capital, with a another $180 million invested in eight more companies.