Optical knowledge has a growing influence on our lives. Modern optics plays a crucial role, for instance, in rapid medical diagnosis, self-driving cars and precise measuring equipment. The Netherlands is at the cutting edge of this knowledge, and at the Dutch Optics Centre (DOC) knowledge institutes and commercial businesses are capitalizing on it.
With 17th-century pioneers such as Christiaan Huygens and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the Netherlands has a rich history of optical research. Scientists all over the world have since built on their groundbreaking work. Optics is now a primary technology with a great many applications in areas such as space, measurement, health care and manufacturing. Many more potential applications await; optics has a bright future.
The Netherlands led the world in optics and still does, says SME Market Manager Erik Ham of TNO: “And not just in fundamental science, but also in commercial applications by companies such as ASML and Philips, as well as numerous SMEs, for example. But international competition is growing fast. Worldwide, the market for optical instruments is expected to grow by 8 – 10% per year. We can’t sit still, and we don’t want to.”
Developing innovative products
TNO and TU Delft have responded by founding the Dutch Optics Centre (DOC), where both knowledge institutes, private companies, and other partners can make use of unique Dutch optical expertise to develop innovative products. Participants are also able to better attune their various research efforts, promote Dutch optics abroad and offer training opportunities to young Dutch talent. Ham: “To sum it up, you could say that there was a need for collaboration and that the DOC brought that about. And who knows, there might be a new Huygens amongst today’s students.”
“Who knows, there might be a new Huygens amongst today’s students”
The DOC functions in the first instance as a field lab, a platform allowing knowledge institutes and private companies to work together on innovations. Ham: “It lets us link up the knowledge chain and keep the lines short. As an applied research organization, TNO can also mediate between scientists and entrepreneurs so that an innovation can be brought to market more quickly.”
Top facilities, top researchers, top products
DOC participants have access to advanced laboratories, clean rooms, and facilities for experiments and tests. Ham: “Collaborating within the DOC also makes it easier to find investment funding for research facilities. Moreover, we have the equipment we need to produce prototypes of innovative products, and by working with TU Delft and TNO, SMEs have access to the knowledge of experts and product designers who are some of the best in the world.”
“By working with TU Delft and TNO, SMEs have access to the knowledge of experts and product designers who are some of the best in the world”
So the DOC offers everything an innovative optics entrepreneur might need, and it has quickly proved a success. Contacts have been established with more than 100 companies and other organizations, and the first projects have already been launched. Ham: “I can’t name any names, but they include a company that is developing a product idea together with TU Delft and TNO. We’re already looking for a component supplier.”
More work and a better life
But what is all this activity directed at? What will the DOC actually deliver? Ham: “First off, more business activity and employment opportunities. But it’s about more than just the economy. Optics can make life better and easier in lots of ways – including medical diagnosis by breath analysis, artificial kidneys, image analysis for self-driving cars and more accurate measurements for production processes in the manufacturing industry.”
“It could be that the age of electronics is over and that this is the century of optics”
The optical equipment needed for these applications was often originally developed for use in space. Ham: “They are almost always one-off examples, and the technology has to be adapted for large-scale use on Earth. The DOC has the facilities. And the list of innovations I just mentioned is by no means exhaustive; I expect many more entrepreneurs to come to us with challenging product ideas. It could be that the age of electronics is over and that this is the century of optics... that might sound like an exaggeration now, but we might not think so in a few years’ time.”