Photon power: Why we are investing in Canada’s photonics start-up community

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Photonics technologies use the properties of light to develop a growing set of applications for industries as diverse as health care, telecommunications, manufacturing, farming and data processing.

Advances in photonics are having a huge impact in many areas of the economy and Canada is well positioned to build a strong position in this industry of the future.

Canada has a deep bench of world-class physicists and engineers working in optics and photonics. These researchers are often associated to university or government-associated research groups across the country, and even a first incubator, Quantino, based in Quebec-city.

There were more than 400 photonics companies employing over 25,000 people in Canada, according to a 2016 report by Photons Canada.

As I want to make clear, these businesses are of a critical importance for the future competitiveness of businesses across the Canadian economy, which is why we have prioritized these technologies in our new $200-million Deep Tech Venture Fund.

We are committed to investing in Canadian photonics businesses and helping them to bring their products to market faster.

We are also supporting Canada’s already vibrant photonics ecosystem with the objective of providing an even more fertile environment for start-ups to grow into global leaders.

Photonic technologies can be divided into three broad categories—sensing and imaging, communications and computing. Here is an overview of the key technologies in each category and their related commercial applications.

1. Sensing and imaging

Photonic sensing relies on the detection of absorbed or emitted light to perform analysis while photonic imaging harnesses the properties of light to penetrate objects in-depth and create 3D models.

  • Hyperspectral and multispectral imaging are ways of collecting, processing and analyzing information from across the light spectrum rather than just the visible spectrum as is the case with standard machine imaging. This can reveal properties of material composition not otherwise detectable.

    Applications

    • Airborne or space-based imaging of agricultural land.
    • Ultra-sensitive remote sensing for the detection of hazards, natural resource geo-mapping and natural disaster response, among other applications.
  • Photothermal photonic imaging uses the optical changes created by the absorption of heat to create in-depth and 3D images of biological material.

    Application

    • Early detection of dental lesions and non-invasive 3D imaging of tumors.
  • Silicon photonic sensing is used in the screening and monitoring of diseases through the detection of skin movement at the nanometre level.

    Application

    • Early identification of individuals at risk of cardio-vascular disease.
  • Photodynamic therapy involves the use of a drug that destroys cells after it is activated by light, usually from a laser.

    Application

    • Can be used to treat a variety of diseases including acne, psoriasis, macular degeneration and several types of cancer.

2. Communications

Optical communications systems transmit information through fibres by converting electronic signals into light pulses, employing laser or light-emitting diode light sources. Photonic technology allows for large amounts of data to be transmitted over long distances.

  • Light-fidelity technologies (Li-Fi) is a wireless communications system used for the transmission of data at high speed over visible light, ultraviolet or infrared spectrums. Li-Fi uses the modulation of light intensity to transmit data.

Applications

    • Li-Fi can be used for communications in numerous industries, including health care. In hospitals, for example, it removes the threat of electromagnetic interference with medical equipment.
  • Silicon photonic data transfer is a technology that uses optical transceivers to convert silicon based electrical signals into light, enabling transmission over long distances and at ultra-high bandwidths.

Applications

    • Optical transceivers are mainly used in data centres to increase data transmission and reception speeds and reduce costs.

3. Computing

Photonic computing uses photons generated by lasers or diodes for high-speed computation. These computers can process data instantly using wave propagation and eliminating delays related to switching latency.

  • Integrated optical technology is an emerging field that involves the integration of waveguides and devices onto a surface to allow complex photonic (or optic) computers to process and transmit light in a way that’s similar to the way traditional computers process and transmit electronic signals. This permits higher transmission and computational speeds.

Applications

    • By using integrated photonics components and computers, data centres can handle terabit-scale data rates of traffic with nanosecond switching speeds. At the same time, these computers will use substantially less power, resulting in important cost savings. Optical interconnection can also vastly increase connectivity and reduce communication times for machines with multiple processors.
    • Using light, semiconductors can be produced that function as transistors with both an electrical output and an optical output. Laser transistors could be used to transfer data between memory chips, graphics cards or other computer elements at faster speeds. Telecommunications network could use integrated optical elements to transfer data over long distances.

Photonics start-up activity by industry

A sector making tremendous progress

Thanks to the efforts of start-up founders and the support of universities, government research facilities and industry groups, the Canadian photonics sector is developing rapidly. At BDC Capital, we are doing our part through our Deep Tech Venture Fund.

We see photonics technologies, along with the other deep tech sectors we have prioritized—quantum technologies, electronics and foundational artificial intelligence—as essential to Canada’s future prosperity and as a global centre of excellence.

Contact us if you’d like to partner with us to build a stronger deep tech ecosystem.

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