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Author Balint Horvath (R) with EPIC meeting attendee Brendan O'gorman. [Image courtesy of Balint Horvath]

Balint Horvath, a Switzerland-based scientist-turned-entrepreneur, hosts "The Hardware Entrepreneur," billed as "the first podcast for building your hardware startup or SME." In this guest post, he shares with OPN's audience some of his recent observations from the annual meeting of the European Industry Photonics Consortium (EPIC). He is pictured with Brendan O'Gorman, another meeting attendee.

I arrived in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 5 April. It was a gorgeous spring day. I wasn't there to check out the famous tulip blooms, however (though that was certainly one of my goals). Instead, I was attending (for my first time) the EPIC Annual General meeting on 6-7 April in Eindhoven, an hour by train from Amsterdam. And what I experienced there was indeed epic.

Eindhoven is referred to as the city of light, due to Philips' headquarters there, making it a very relevant location for this meeting. The city's High Tech Campus (HTC), which served as the location for this meeting, has an impressive track record in inventive output; some 40 percent of the Netherland's yearly patents stem from this campus. HTC is innovative and entrepreneurial, with 40 or 50 startups housed on the campus grounds.

Keeping members competitive—and up to date

EPIC envisions serving its members by helping them to expand technologically and enter new markets. The consortium has more than 300 members, and there's considerable demand to join: in recent years, EPIC has shown a roughly 30 percent gain in membership per year.

I find it remarkable how EPIC is working toward its vision, which also explains why membership in the association is so attractive. As an association, EPIC wants to improve its members' competitiveness, and it does this in a number of ways, such as helping at various stages of a company's life—whether the company is a startup or an established company with revenues of hundreds of millions of euros. EPIC offers access to market reports, so members can stay up to date, and organizes tech workshops around certain topics, such as an upcoming one at the European Space Agency and another on photonic integrated circuits.

Building the network

EPIC's special networking meetings appear to be among the most beloved events the group offers. At the annual general meeting, for example, C-level executives can network. Carlos Lee, EPIC's director general, did a great job bringing such executives together, actively encouraging the participants to come on stage to share their needs so member companies could help solve their problems.

Lee and his colleagues went the extra mile during networking events by introducing participants to one another, a gesture that I certainly benefited from. Through this effort, I was introduced on the first night of the meeting to Christian Bosshard of the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, as well as to fellow entrepreneur Brendan O'Gorman (who I'm pictured with above), the founder of CRUX Photonics. Furthermore, EPIC helps individuals find jobs at partner companies by consolidating vacancies on its website. And, I learned at the meeting that Jose Pozo, EPIC's director of technology and innovation, visited 96 companies last year and served as a link between them. This is a great example of a network that is more than its sum of its constituents.

Lee's customer-centric attitude was also on display in his quick tests on certain potential initiatives he had in mind, probing the audience about these when he was on stage, then counting the number of supporting hands in the air. One such initiative would offer sales help to companies, to assist them in selling to new markets. Another proposed initiative is connecting entrepreneurs to more funding opportunities and investors. In fact, there's an EPIC event this year on this topic.

At the meeting, participants presented their technological achievements, while others showcased the photonics industry in certain regions or countries of the world, like Singapore or Russia. One presentation I found particularly interesting was by Angel Ruben Criado, founder and CEO of Luz Wavelabs. Criado talked about his superior technology for millimeter and THz photonic products, as well as his personal journey of creating Luz WavelabsWavelabs. Criado talked about his superior technology for millimeter and THz photonic products, as well as his personal journey of creating Luz Wavelabs—a startup—during the busy time when his child was born.

Meeting a photonics titan

Another major highlight for me was attending an entrepreneurship workshop run by Milton Chang—an industry titan whom I've come to think of as the "Dalai Lama of photonics," because his words are so well thought out and full of wisdom. (At the same time, though, Chang was ready to have some fun during his presentation.) I've followed him since I earned my doctorate in physics (photonics) and have read his articles in industrial journals and in Optics & Photonics News, so it was a real treat for me to see him give a talk and discuss questions with him personally.

Chang, along with John Matthews, worked to build Newport Corporation from a privately held laser equipment company to a leading public company in the field. Chang also founded New Focus, a laser instrument company that he bootstrapped and later took public. Additionally, he advised many startups as a board member, advisor and angel investor. He's a strong believer in starting a niche market, then growing. During his lively presentation, he referred to this idea as "starting modestly."

As we learned, "starting modestly" doesn't mean starting small—it instead means that one has to have short-term, realistic goals while having also a grand vision. Another nugget of wisdom he shared was related to the psychology of entrepreneurs, saying that "[a company's] growth is limited by your mindset." His book, Toward Entrepreneurship, elaborates on this viewpoint. I consider it one of the best books I've read on entrepreneurship and how to run a company, as it details necessary ingredients such as leadership and nurturing culture.

When the event ended, all participants left in all directions. (I headed back to Amsterdam, where I did indeed realize my other goal of seeing those famous tulips—thousands of them—in the world's largest spring garden.) Next year the EPIC Annual General Meeting will be held in Berlin, Germany. I hope to see many familiar faces there.