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Secpho workshop attendees network at an aerospace industry event. [Image: Secpho]

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Secpho—a photonics cluster in Spain that brings together companies, technology centers and research groups to collaborate and advance light science in southern Europe. It also marked the year that Secpho, which now comprises more than 100 members, joined OSA’s ranks as the first European cluster to become an OSA member.

OPN spoke with Sergio Sáez, Secpho’s cluster manager, to learn more about its journey over the past decade, the photonics landscape in Spain, and what the next 10 years may have in store for the cluster.

Beyond networking

When Secpho was founded a decade ago, it was a platform for those involved (at the time, only about 10 companies and research centers) to meet and collaborate. Since then, however, Secpho’s scope has expanded as photonics has evolved. In particular, the cluster has moved from a mainly academic focus on R&D to encompass a broader view of Spain’s research landscape— looking outside of the lab and connecting photonic technologies with market opportunities.

“In Europe, there are about 40 photonic clusters,” Sáez says. “These clusters play a role of cohesion; they act as meeting points to enhance networking.” Secpho, which serves the comparatively young photonics ecosystem in Spain, is a bit different, according to Sáez. “We go beyond networking,” he explains. “All of our actions are aimed at connecting the capabilities and the technologies of our members with all kinds of sectors in the Spanish economy.”

With a private, nonprofit cluster staffed by just seven employees, Sáez says that it can be challenging to provide all of the services that larger clusters offer—such as training, internationalization of innovation, connecting investors with startups and more. Instead, Secpho has a single core focus—to accelerate technology transfer for its members. According to Sáez, positioning Secpho in this way, and focusing the small cluster’s limited resources on this specialized goal, has allowed the cluster and its members to flourish.

A decade of change

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A Secpho health-technologies industry workshop was held at a prosthetics and implant facility. [Image: Secpho]

Sáez, who has navigated this path for Secpho over the past eight years, believes that the cluster’s tech-transfer focus is key. Even though advances in photonics in recent years have been impressive, he notes, photonic technology alone is not enough—it needs to be accompanied by other software and engineering technologies, such as deep learning or  advanced materials, to create major industrial systems.

The cluster accomplishes this in a number of ways. For example, Secpho hosts workshops where cluster members connect with companies or representatives of a specific sector—agriculture, automotive or steel, for example—to try and define the technological challenges facing the field. Then, they create working groups to design collaborative projects and develop innovative solutions to meet those challenges.

Secpho also offers digital resources, the convenience of which allow the cluster to rally its membership and respond quickly to major global challenges. For example, it recently hosted a webinar on applying “deep tech” and photonic solutions to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past decade, Secpho has connected with more than 25 different industrial sectors using this approach, resulting in over 100 specific project initiatives. In partnership with the Spanish Ministry of Industry, the cluster invested directly in 30 of those projects. Its relationship with the Spanish government also enables Secpho to provide funding to startups that want to prototype their technologies.

Investing in Europe

Another aspect of Secpho’s operations is its active participation in Europe-wide initiatives, such as the European Commission’s research and innovation framework program, Horizon 2020. Secpho has been involved in 11 initiatives in the past eight years, three of which are ongoing. “One of our roles as a cluster is to connect our ecosystem, our members, with the wider European photonic ecosystem,” says Sáez. “We try to build a bridge, and we use this process for that.”

One example is FoodPackLab, an ongoing project in which the cluster has been involved for the past two years. In this initiative, Secpho connected people working in photonics with people from the food-packaging and food-processing industry. In workshops held all over Europe, participants discussed potential new technologies for overcoming challenges in food security—for example, in food safety and food monitoring. Over the next two years, the project will expand to include activities in India and South Africa.

Think locally—and globally

Participating in these Europe-wide initiatives has been valuable to Secpho, and the cluster plans to stay active in these types of projects in the future. However, says Sáez, “we try always to look for balance.” Continent-wide and global connections are important, but Sáez believes that it’s Secpho’s strong local focus on its membership that has kept the cluster connected and successful.

“We want to continue being part of these European initiatives because it helps us to connect our members with the European ecosystem,” he explains. “But on the other hand, our main goal is to connect their technologies with the final sectors.”