Pilot Photonics is laser-focused on solving real-world problems

26 Feb 2018

From left: Chris Leonard, vice-president of sales and marketing; Desi Gutierrez, R&D manager; and Frank Smyth, CEO and co-founder, Pilot Photonics. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Our Start-up of the Week is DCU spin-out Pilot Photonics, which has developed a new type of laser that can be used across a whole spectrum of applications.

“We have developed a new type of laser called an optical comb source that brings benefits to a huge range of applications, from optical communication networks, to gas sensoring and even to atomic clocks used in satellites to deliver GPS navigation,” explained Frank Smyth, co-founder and CEO of Pilot Photonics.

More than 10 years of pioneering R&D has enabled Pilot Photonics to develop laser tech that could revolutionise multiple industries, including space.

‘The use of photonic integration drives huge efficiencies in cost, footprint, power consumption and performance, and Pilot Photonics has the world’s only photonic integrated comb laser source’

In recent weeks, we reported how the Dublin City University (DCU) spin-out company raised close to €1m in an investment round led by Bank of Ireland Kernel Capital Funds in syndication with Dublin Business Innovation Centre.

The market

DCU spin-out Pilot Photonics raises close to €1m

From left: Ger Goold, COO and partner, Kernel Capital; Frank Smyth, CEO and co-founder, Pilot Photonics; and Kevin Healy, senior manager, corporate banking Ireland, Bank of Ireland. Image: Kernel Capital

“We are going after very targeted segments of the overall laser market, which was worth $11bn last year,” Smyth explained.

“The current chips we are developing have an addressable market value of around $200m for the chips alone, but the products that they enable have addressable markets several times that value.

“We have lots more ideas and designs in the pipeline to go after further markets when we have increased our capacity further.”

The founders

The five founders spun the company out in 2011 based on patents from DCU and the Tyndall National Institute.

“We were carrying out research in optical communications at the time, funded by Science Foundation Ireland and Enterprise Ireland,” Smyth explained.

“Two of the co-founders, Philip Perry and Prince Anandarajah, sit on our board of directors, while the other two, Prof Liam Barry and Prof Andrew Ellis, remained in academia and continue to support, advise and collaborate with the company.

“They provide a great pipeline of licensable intellectual property and graduates with the skillset that we need.

Smyth’s background is in electronic engineering and he specialised in fibre optic communication R&D. “Entrepreneurship was always my calling. I went from selling sweets from the driveway at home, to a decent little business fixing computers in the locality, and finally to setting up Pilot Photonics. I also spent some time in research management over the last few years as the executive director of the SFI research centres CTVR and Connect.”

Jules Braddell is VP of engineering and the start-up’s inventor in chief. He has a background in physics and spent the early part of his career working in what is now the Tyndall National Institute. Also an entrepreneur at heart, Braddell has been bringing innovative photonic products to market through spin-outs, start-ups and more established companies, both in Ireland and abroad for many years.

Chris Leonard is vice-president of sales and marketing, and is a lifelong technology deal-maker. He spent his early career in the US in successful start-ups and multinationals, including Oracle. He moved from software into photonics in 2004 when he joined Intune Technology and, since joining Pilot Photonics last year, Leonard has used his extensive network to open up major new accounts for the company, including securing its first contract with the European Space Agency.

Desi Gutierrez, from Malaga, Spain, was the company’s first employee when she joined as an undergrad intern back in 2012.

“Since then, she has completed her PhD with us through the Irish Research Council’s Employment-Based Postgraduate Scheme, and she is now our R&D manager,” said Smyth.

The technology

An optical comb is a single laser that generates light on multiple wavelengths, or colours of light, at the same time.

“At its simplest, a single comb source can be used to replace several lasers, but combs have other properties that allow you to do fancy things with them,” Smyth explained.

“As one example, comb lasers allow you to overlap data channels in an optical fibre without causing interference between them. This lets you pack more data into existing optical fibres. As another example, comb lasers can be used to create the world’s most accurate clocks, millions of times more accurate than your wristwatch.

“We use a technique called photonic integration to generate our optical combs. This state-of-the-art technique combines multiple optical functions on a single photonic chip, and is analogous to the development of electronic integrated circuits or microchips in the 1960s, which combined multiple electronic functions on a single silicon chip.

“The use of photonic integration drives huge efficiencies in cost, footprint, power consumption and performance, and Pilot Photonics has the world’s only photonic integrated comb laser source.”

Smyth said the ultimate goal is see Pilot’s technology enabling a whole suite of new products, solving real-world problems across numerous markets.

“Ideally, making some money along the way – and bonus points if we get our technology into a satellite or used on one of the space programmes.”

Piloting the photonic future

The company recently closed a round of funding led by Kernel Capital, and syndicated with AIB Seed Capital Fund and Enterprise Ireland.

“Since then, things have really taken off,” Smyth said.

“The photonic integration technology that Jules developed has been successful, and it creates a very unique and attractive proposition for Chris to bring to customers.

“We secured a contract with the European Space Agency, and have projects ongoing with some major customers. I’m pleased to say that we have more demand than capacity currently so, yes, we plan to raise further investment in the next few months.”

But, like most start-ups, the company has had many challenges along the way, mainly financial.

“We ran out of cash and came very close to shutting down the business at one point. We were saved by an EU funding grant that DCU helped us secure, which allowed us to keep the small engineering team in place to continue developing the technology.

“The management team at the time had to take jobs elsewhere for a few years and keep the business going in our spare time.”

Smyth believes the start-up scene in Ireland is flourishing but that entrepreneurs should never allow themselves to get too comfortable.

“I really like some of the accelerator programmes where a start-up can develop, refine and test an idea, as well as learn a lot in a very short space of time. Pretty quickly, though, I think they should be spending less time in the start-up scene, which is quite general and broad, and more time in whatever scene is attached to their specific industry. It’s really important to get out of your comfort zone and hear what potential customers think of your offering as early as possible. We didn’t do enough of that in the early days.”

His advice to fellow founders is to explore all options for development funding and grants.

“There is loads of tech development funding available in Ireland if you know where to look, but it can be tough to navigate. In our case, the SFI research centres, Connect and IPIC, are right in our space and can co-fund collaborative R&D projects; Enterprise Ireland are hugely supportive, too, via their own programmes; European Space Agency funding; and EU Horizon 2020 supports.

“For university spin-out companies in particular, I would advise them to stay in the university as long as possible, until they actually need to be an independent organisation for commercial or legal reasons.

“You can de-risk things and build some market traction so that, if and when you need to raise investment, you can get a better deal and give away less of your company.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years