Growing photonics startups

Dr Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of photonics accelerator Luminate, discusses the investment trends for optical innovations









The evolution of optics, imaging and photonics has been varied with periods of great innovation and advancement mixed with times of steady engineering progress. We are fortunate to find ourselves in an era of creativity where, with a little encouragement, innovative concepts and businesses can reshape our lives. Driving the emergence of these ideas is an interest and demand for augmented and virtual reality at one end of the spectrum. At the other, is the critical need for medical and bio-photonics technology to augment and grow with the rapidly changing landscape of life sciences.

At Luminate – a not-for-profit investment and accelerator programme designed to assist start-up businesses to bridge the gap from early stage venture to a sustainable business – we seek businesses that have the potential to change the industry but require a little assistance. Luminate invests $100,000 into several companies, and coaches each firm as they build their business for six months. There is a further $1-2 million available in follow-on investments to businesses after this initial period.

It has been our experience that, particularly for hardware companies, it is difficult to secure investment in that bridge state between seed rounds and when the business reaches strong recurrent revenue. We see it as our mission to assist companies in that stage to preserve and to grow optical technologies.

We believe the technology we have seen and invested in is indicative of the emerging trends in optics, photonics and imaging. From the vantage point of the fund, we see the following trends in emerging optics firms.

Emerging trends

Whereas a decade ago, AR/VR was largely an entertainment or gaming technology, the integration of AR/VR imaging systems into daily industrial and commercial use has created a demand for accessible, affordable and application-specific designs. Included in our current portfolio are companies developing technologies to assist first responders, such as Bounce Imaging with a 3600 tactical camera that permits remote viewing of highly stabilised images inside dangerous situations. Positive Science provides lightweight eye tracking and behavioural analysis systems, which were designed originally to monitor children but are proving to be very useful for drone pilots. Arovia has created a portable pop-up monitor perfect for remote environments (see image below). Tarsier Optics has developed the capability to image through turbulence, a clear requirement of surveillance systems. Lumotune has invented a clear glass display for use in shop windows. In addition, Luminate also supports enabling technologies such as molecular glasses and OLED materials. The miniaturisation, increased ruggedness, and ease of use of each of these technologies moves the industry forward by making imaging technology accessible. It is that accessibility that propels growth and, in return, further innovation.

Along a different industrial trajectory, we are seeing a great deal of medical and life science based progress in the industry. The fast-paced growth of pharmaceutical research is mirrored in the innovation supporting technologies that enable better analysis. We have seen major advances in microscopy and imaging systems designed to provide information at the nanoscale. By examining data at the molecular and virus scale, life science and pharmaceutical development becomes that much more comprehensive. An example of a company making significant advances in this space is Double Helix, based in Boulder, Colorado. Used in conjunction with conventional microscopy, their technology provides 3D nanoscale imaging over a large depth of field. The accuracy and robustness of Double Helix’s technology will enable research organisations to understand the dynamics of biological systems and use that knowledge to advance the field.

Medical device technology is incorporating optical system capabilities into the design of detection, diagnostic and treatment systems. Use of imaging technology is by no means novel. Having utilised images and x-rays in for well over 100 years, the medical industry is accustomed to incorporating image data into patient care. Progress in imaging technologies combined with a wealth of data and data handling has improved the diagnostic capabilities of medical professionals. Imaging technologies, such as optical coherence tomography (OCT), enable non-invasive diagnostics that improve patient outcomes as well as reducing hospital stays.

Among Luminate’s portfolio firms, LighTopTech uses Gabor domain OCT to provide non-invasive biopsy capability to dermatologists. This technology is a more accurate, non-surgical and a faster means to cycle patients through surgical procedures. We, at Luminate, have also seen significant advances in ophthalmological diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders. Imaging through the clear window of the eye provides different analytical understanding of the health of the eye. An example is seen at Intelon Optics and their Brillouin Optical Scanning system. Using acoustically induced inelastic light scattering, the system demonstrates non-contact direct read-out of the biomechanical properties of the eye. These properties provide diagnostic capabilities of many common disorders such as keratoconus, high myopia, presbyopia and cataracts.

In more consumer-oriented applications, the emergence of technology such as the Fitbit and other bio monitoring devices provide consumers the means to monitor their own fitness. Optical sensors can also give biometric information about the wearer. Utilising this approach is Think Biosolutions, from Dublin, Ireland, that provides the wearer of the sensor feedback to adjust their workout regime.

Photonics in Rochester

The fund and accelerator is critically dependent on location. Luminate is located in Rochester, New York, where there is an exceptionally strong ecosystem in optics. Building on well over 100 years’ worth of infrastructure and domain knowledge, Rochester supports to these companies in a manner unique to a region of photonics expertise. The city is home to the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester (UR), which can provide expert design guidance and support. Additionally, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is a participant in the Luminate programme and offers design for manufacturing support. This region of NY provides access to numerous prestigious universities such as Cornell, SUNY schools as well as UR and RIT.

Along with graduate level educational opportunity, Rochester has a unique programme through the High Schools and Monroe Community College, designed to train optical technicians, of which there is a dearth in this industry.

Complementing the educational infrastructure is the vibrant commercial ecosystem of the New York Photonics Cluster. Boasting more than 150 optics and photonics companies, the region has the manufacturing and business support to grow photonics companies. Stepping up to guide and support the Luminate investments have been numerous veteran companies such as Navitar, Sydor, Optimax, Lumetrics, GSI and many others, all of whom have openly supported the fledgling companies of Luminate.

This support is echoed in the economic development initiatives giving financial backing to the companies and region. Empire State Development offers financial support to Luminate, as well as other regional programmes reinforcing the continued support of the State of New York.

Also located in Rochester is the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics), an industry-driven public-private partnership developing capability and scale for integrated photonics. It is worth noting some of the key advantages of growing businesses in regions such as Rochester. The region provides an abundance of water and other natural resources, affordable manufacturing infrastructure with amenities such as industrial sewering.

For those of us who have chosen to grow businesses in the region, we have the good fortune of a well-trained workforce, affordable housing, excellent schools and a welcoming community.

  • Luminate is a startup accelerator focused on advancing next-generation optics, photonics and imaging-enabled companies. It seeks entrepreneurs who can solve problems in augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, machine vision, biophotonics and other areas.