PhotonFirst develops and manufactures photonics sensing technologies to measure temperature, strain, pressure, shape and acceleration in objects ranging from buildings to airplanes to medical devices. On the occasion of the opening of their new office at High Tech Campus Eindhoven, we asked CEO Daan Kersten about their developments and ambitions, which include a stock market listing within the next five years.

Although PhotonFirst’s experience in photonics spans over fifteen years the company only came into existence this year, having hived off from their sister company Technobis in Alkmaar. With the new name also came a new ambition, to grow fast and float the company on the stock market in five years’ time. And they hired a new CEO to make that happen. Daan Kersten, who headed the 3D-print company Additive Industries for nearly eight years, is tasked with making PhotonFirst grow into a multinational with a hundred million euro turnover.  

“Eindhoven and especially the High Tech Campus is the hotspot of the photonics industry in The Netherlands, so it made sense to open a second office here,” Kersten explains their move to Campus. “We already had intensive partnerships with SMARTPhotonics and BRIGHT Integrated Photonics, who help us design and manufacture our photonics chips. They are also located in Eindhoven, so it’s good to be geographically close. And Eindhoven is full of the kind of talent we need to support our growth.”

Airplane wing

PhotonFirst is one of the pioneers in integrated photonics sensing. They develop and distribute photonics chips and sensors that accurately measure the condition, use and wear and tear of an object, machine or system. Think of the shape of airplane wings, the strain on a bridge or the downforce on a race car.

Integrated photonics, the technology of light, is a relatively new and more efficient way to measure these parameters. Kersten: “Traditionally strain was measured with bulky electrical units and strain gauges. Our sensors are integrated into glass fibers, which means they are much smaller and lighter. You can basically install them anywhere, which is why the aerospace industry is interested since it can be mounted into an airplane wing. And because we don’t work with electronics there is no disturbance through magnetic or electronic fields. These benefits make data collection more reliable and accessible.”

Data is the new gold of the maintenance industry, since it tells you exactly when fatigue occurs and parts have to be maintained, repaired or replaced. That is why integrated photonics sensing is considered a breakthrough technology for smarter maintenance by adding predictive and preventive capabilities.

Heartbeat in a blood vessel

So how does the technology work exactly? The basics are simple enough: a glass fiber cable is outfitted with tiny mirrors called Fibre Bragg Gratings (FBGs). A light signal is shot through the cable and partially reflected by the FBG mirrors. Any force or pressure impacting the object where the glass fiber is installed, like the wind on the rotor of a wind turbine or the pounding of thousands of cars on a bridge, will alter the shape of the glass fiber cable, which in turn changes the position of the mirrors and consequently the properties of the light reflected. Because the FBGs will reflect the light differently depending on the force of pressure, it tells you everything you need to know about how the object behaves, expands, shrinks, changes or degenerates over time.

As a practical example of how this technology is used Kersten says they are currently exploring ways in which they can measure the temperature in the battery packs of electric cars. The energy efficiency and range of electric cars depends for a large part on the temperature distribution in the batteries. “It’s almost impossible to measure that with the conventional measurement systems,” Kersten says. “But our technology allows measurements in many different places inside the batteries without increasing their size or adding more weight to the car. This could significantly improve the driving range of electric cars.”

Another inspiring example is in the medical field, where PhotonFirst conducts experiments with surgeons on haptic feedback. During minimally invasive surgery, like inserting a hollow tube through a patient’s skin, PhotonFirst’s system can let the surgeon know exactly how much pressure he is exerting on the pincher that is holding the tissue. The FBGs inside the surgical tool respond to the stress and strain in the pincher and translate these to haptic feedback on the handle of the tool. Surgeons said they could feel the heartbeat in the blood vessel through the handle bar. The added value of feeling their own pressure allows surgeons to handle the instrumentation even more effectively for the benefit of the patient’s treatment.

Global innovation leader

Apart from automotive and medical PhotonFirst also has clients in aerospace, high-tech systems, energy and infrastructure markets. Most clients are located abroad, with Asia and North America as the biggest growth markets. The ultimate ambition is to become global innovation leader in integrated photonics sensing. To make that happen they need to achieve more volume in their applications, says Kersten. “When we’re able to produce our systems in large volumes the technology becomes much cheaper, which makes it more attractive to investors.”

The biggest bottleneck to the growth is the fact that photonics is still a relatively unknown field for many business leaders, Kersten says. That is why he wants to use the next few years to actively identify the best possible applications together with their clients.

To do that PhotonFirst is growing the team and is looking for good technical salespeople who can help shape their international expansion. “Anyone interested can contact us.”