Photonics in Austria: The Mastering and Application of Light

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Feature

By Ulrich Trog

Photonics is the technology of light, a key technology of the 21st century and one of the Key Enabling Technologies (KET) defined by the European Commission. Similar to electrons in electronics, the photons in photonics are of primary importance for many applications.

Photonics, as a term, is derived from optical data transmission. Originally, progress in this field was related especially to the invention of the laser (1960) and fiber optics (1970). Today photonics is understood as branches of knowledge and technologies that use light for various applications. This opens a wide field that requires a more detailed explanation.

Photonics deals with the generation, transmission and guidance, modification, amplification, and detection of light. Therefore, the term is often used synonymously with optoelectronics. Thus, the field of photonics can be described by the following topics defined by the European Photonics platform Photonics21:

  • Information & Communication Technologies: fiber optics, optical modulators, switches, and waveguides
  • Industrial Manufacturing and Quality: laser-assisted processing and production
  • Life Science and Health: biophotonics, optical diagnostics and screening methods
  • Emerging Lighting, Electronics, and Displays: LED, OLED, organic photovoltaic, flexible electronics, and organic large-area electronics (OLAE)
  • Security, Metrology, and Sensors: extended infrared sensors, coherent and incoherent sources/detectors
  • Design and manufacturing of components and systems
  • Photonics Research, Education, and Training: Photonics Explorer, quantum optics, quantum information, holography, extreme light, and nanophotonics.

Source: Final Report of the high-level expert group on Key Enabling Technologies, European Commission, June 2011

Photonics is a high-tech sector that is growing worldwide. From 2005 to 2011, photonics was able to outperform global GDP and reached a global market of around €350 billion in 2011. Today photonics is everywhere around us, and the full potential of photons is still unrealized. The expected market volume in 2020 is estimated at about €650 billion[1].

Source: Spectaris, Photonik Branchenreport 2013, www.spectaris. 

The rise from a niche technology to one of the most important industries for the future of Europe is closely related to long-term funding of the European Commission and the national governments as well as a strong commitment of the European photonics industry. In 2009, the European Commission recognized photonics as a Key Enabling Technology[2]. In addition, photonics is showing the highest growth potential in terms of market opportunities among all other KETs[3]. Europe has currently established a strong position with a total global market share of 18 percent, and as much as 55 percent in key sectors such as production technologies. In addition, photonics has a substantial leverage effect on the European economy and workforce: 20-30 percent of the economy and 10 percent of the workforce depend on photonics4 . The European photonics industry employs more than 300,000 people directly, many of them in the over 5000 photonics companies, mainly small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The Association Photonics Austria                                                                                              

The Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (bmvit) initiated the Austrian technology platform Photonics Austria. This platform represents both national industry and research to achieve a strong presence at national and international levels and to promote exchange between industry, research, and education.

Photonics Austria was officially established as a legal entity in November 2013. The network that led to the founding of Photonics Austria comprises 55 organizations including all relevant universities, research and technology organizations, industry, and the ministry and intermediaries in Austria such as the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG. Many prominent organizations from the business sector such as Zumtobel Group, Fronius International, ams, or WILD are represented, as are a range of specialized SMEs.

The main focus of Photonics Austria is to establish networking and cooperation between business, research, and education in the field of photonics. The network therefore organizes meetings in different locations throughout Austria. Hosted by a member organization, specific photonics-related topics are discussed, mostly with emphasis on the specific business field in which the host is active. For example, the meeting hosted by Zumtobel Lighting was related to general lighting, while a meeting at the Upper Austrian Laser Institute was related to laser processing. Besides technical topics, such meetings also cover relevant input from the European Union or Photonics21 regarding Horizon 2020 or the program “Smart Specialization.” Within Photonics Austria, representatives of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology cover relevant input. The association is frequently invited to participate in developing call texts for national research funding programs and serves as the voice of the national photonics community.

In the future, Photonics Austria will move towards an innovation network, facilitating the necessary exchanges for discussing innovative ideas among its members. The small business sector is very important for the Austrian economy, so the outreach to the relevant SMEs in the field of photonics will be a key activity.


From January 2015 onwards, Photonics Austria will take part in two European projects funded in Horizon 2020.

EuroPho21 – Towards a cohesive strategy for Photonics in Europe

Currently Europe is able to keep its world market share in photonics at 18 percent, whereas other regions traditionally strong in photonics, like the US and Japan, have already lost shares to China, South Korea, or Taiwan[4]. However, the global shift of the photonics market share to Asia is becoming an increasing threat to the European photonics industry . To stay competitive, the European photonics community needs to further join forces to develop and implement a common strategy for Europe. Europe must strengthen its industrial leadership by promoting wide-scale cooperation and better integration across the whole research and innovation value chain. The full photonics value chain does not yet exist in many EU Member States, and this presents a significant barrier to expansion of the photonics industry. The Photonics Public Private Partnership (PPP) established in Horizon 2020 is the mechanism for achieving these goals. The time is now right to take the next step and combine resources at all levels – European, national, and regional – adopting one cohesive strategy to significantly strengthen the sector and move toward new advanced photonic technologies. The European photonics community can then address the grand challenges facing European society and maximize the economic benefits derived from the next generation of photonics products.

Consequently, at the strategic level, EuroPho21 shares the strategic objectives of the Photonics PPP[5]:

  • to foster photonics manufacturing, jobs, and wealth creation in Europe through a long-term investment commitment by industry and by the European Commission;
  • to accelerate Europe’s innovation process and time to market by addressing the full innovation and value chain in a number of market sectors in which the European photonics industry is particularly strong (e.g., lighting, medical photonics, and optical components & systems);
  • to mobilize, pool, and leverage public and private resources to provide successful solutions for some of the major societal challenges facing Europe, particularly in healthcare & well-being, and in energy efficiency.


Within the framework of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015) proclaimed by the United Nations, Photonics4all will mainly improve the public image of photonics and increase the public awareness of the importance of photonics, especially regarding current societal challenges. Strong and broad European collaborations (European cluster activities) will increase the interest of young people, entrepreneurs, and the general public, thereby ensuring the fulfillment of future needs for a qualified workforce and young academics, more innovative applications, and an increased awareness of photonics. This program is also expected to push innovative applications through the “Valley of Death” and thereby create a more sustainable future for the photonics market.

The idea of Photonics4all is to promote photonics using many tools to address young people (pupils and students), entrepreneurs (start-ups, Ph.D.-candidates, academics, and companies), and the general public. These tools will be developed and implemented through many promotional activities to be conducted during the project. Thus, the unique focus of Photonics4all is to develop new promotional tools and to perform various outreach activities.

The main goal is to stimulate interest in photonic technologies among the mentioned target groups in many European countries, in order to achieve an EU-wide outreach. This outreach for promoting photonics to these target groups can be achieved by increasing the awareness and recognition of photonics, as well as its indispensable contribution in countless applications and important role in many current technologies.

Finally, Photonics4all’s vision is to foster an environment in which the term “photonics” enjoys the same familiarity and public awareness as other technical fields (e.g., electronics or mechanics).

Joint Austrian pavilion at SPIE Photonics West 2015

Advantage Austria, together with Photonics Austria, will present an Austrian joint pavilion February 10-12, 2015, at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco.

The companies represented at the Austrian pavilion will be Bartenbach Lichtlabor, IN-VISION Digital Imaging Optics, RHP – Technology, Swarovski Optik, Roithner Lasertechnik, JOANNEUM RESEARCH, and University of Applied Sciences Vorarlberg.

SPIE Photonics West is the premier photonics and laser event in the world. With more than 1,250 companies participating, this exhibition continues to be the flagship event for finding the latest products, tools, and applications for research or business needs. 

Ulrich Trog manages Photonics Austria, the Austrian technology platform for Photonics. He also serves as the Innovation and Marketing Manager at the MATERIALS - Institute for Surface Technologies and Photonics at JOANNEUM RESEARCH, Graz, Austria.

[1] Industry Report Photonics 2013; Editors: VDMA, BMBF, Spectaris, ZVEI; May 2013 – Report coordinated by VDI Technologiezentrum.

[2] European Commission Communication.

[3] “High Level Report on Key Enabling Technologies” (2010), European Commission Expert Group on KET.

4 Industry Report Photonics 2013; Editors: VDMA, BMBF, Spectaris, ZVEI; May 2013.

[4]Industry Report Photonics 2013; Editors: VDMA, BMBF, Spectaris, ZVEI; May 2013.

[5] Photonics PPP Contract signed by Photonics21 and the European Commission, Dec 2013