Visible laser beams with Top Precision
Bingo! An EU funded research project surpassed all expectations, and the result was a new type of laser beam of unprecedented quality. Great interest from the industry and a first prize in Venture Cup emphasized a perfect starting point for developing business. But time passed without progress - until the Technical University of Denmark decided to give innovation and external collaboration extra focus.
When the new spin-out, Norlase, was founded four months ago, it had been long awaited. The business potential of the technology behind the new laser is significant, but changing research to business still dragged on, because none of the researchers threw themselves eagerly into the task.
The great research breakthrough came in connection with an EU project, in which the studies on optimization of laser beams really began to pay off.
"Initially the groundbreaking results with our laser beams were a minor part of an EU project, that succeeded far better than anyone had dared hope for. We soon discovered that our laser beams were far better than anything produced so far. They were actually five times better," Ole Bjarlin Jensen explains. Ole is senior researcher at the Department of Photonics Engineering, Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
The great interest from the outside world was both commercial and scientific, and not least from the press. In order to secure business opportunities, DTU and the scientists started working on several patent applications. Today DTU has taken out one dominant patent, and two more are pending - so far so good. The future looked bright, and good fortune followed the scientists.
First prize in Venture Cup
For the purpose of planting the seed for the creation of spin-outs from DTU Fotonik, the institute employed an innovation officer, Monika Luniewska, in 2011 to spot research projects suitable for business and help them get on with the process.
"Just when she started, we had submitted an application for proof of concept funding for verification of the ideas in the first patent. She saw it, and promptly recommended that we should participate in Venture Cup. We were selected, went through to the final, and even won our category," Ole explains.
Venture Cup is a competition where the participants present a business concept. For each step of the process, they are asked to work on a business plan. A professional jury continuously assesses whether or not the ideas are ready for investment. The first place entailed a prize of DKK 50.000 and a so-called booster pack containing sponsored gifts and benefits such as legal and accounting advice, layout and hosting of a website and last but not least: 500 caffeinated soft drinks for the long working days at the institute ...
But despite the good results and lots of positive media coverage, establishment of the new spin-out failed to gather speed.
"We achieved a lot of attention, but still not much concrete was done regarding company development. It was probably because none of the people involved had an urge to go all the way and become an entrepreneur. Then in 2012, Jes Broeng started as a business developer at DTU. He came with a commercial background, a remarkable drive, and a huge network," Ole explains.
A bridge between university and business
Jes Broeng has now been business developer at the Department of Photonics Engineering for almost two years. His job is to step in early in the development of new spin-outs with business potential, and the support is much needed.
"I help get the projects into a process that prepares them to stand on their own feet as businesses, and it must be done well in advance, preferably a whole year before startup. A critical element, in my opinion, is early involvement of individuals with relevant knowledge and sales experience, "explains Jes Broeng.
The idea of involving outsiders with knowledge of trade and commercial focus is pivotal in Copenhagen Spin-outs, and so far the outcome has been positive.
The method is called "Bridging the Gap", and was developed by DTU Fotonik in collaboration with DTU Chemistry. The experience so far with Bridging the Gap and Copenhagen Spin-outs is now being discussed with several other universities. They, too, have a goal of making future founders knowledgeable about business opportunities, and connecting them with commercial partners as early as possible.
"We aim at creating sustainable spin-outs, with customers and commercial partners from day one, to relieve the burden of expenses in the initial phase. We come in a year before start-up and provide connections to the right people. It then becomes an independent company. We are typically members of an advisory board in the early stages, and help with for example setting up collaborations with the industry and creating strong networks before the founding. The company also needs collaborations with the university, and here we try, as early as possible, to align the expectations of the researchers, the external partners, and the university in order for as efficient and transparent a process as possible," Jes explains.
In the case of Norlase, DTU managed to attract external forces from Denmark, England, and the United States. Several of them entered as seed investors, so called because they finance the first germ of the company before it grows and becomes a big business.
"For instance, we succeeded in recruiting Peter Skovgaard as CEO of Norlase – with support from Copenhagen Spin-outs, for the first 3 months’ salary. He has experience from various start up companies in the same industry as well as personal drive and many years of experience in product development, "says Jes, who praises DTU for focusing on creating the basis for customer-focused companies with external partners from day one.
Customers do not turn up automatically
Despite the surprising research breakthrough, followed by the first prize in Venture Cup, and support from Bridging the Gap and Copenhagen Spin-outs, the people behind Norlase encountered many challenges.
"We have only existed for four months, yet we are already creating a customer base, which we are very happy about. We have sold the first lasers to international customers, and the interest in our lasers is big, but it has required more work than expected to complete the product and selling it, " Ole says.
The booster pack from Venture Cup helped Norlase start up, but a new company has many expenses.
"We are extremely grateful for the financial support from both Venture Cup and Copenhagen Spin-outs, e.g. Peter Skovgaard’s salary, but there are many other start-up costs such as developing prototypes or travel expenses for market research," Ole explains.
He advises other entrepreneurs to remember to include these expenses in the budget. And to be prepared for a great deal of soul searching, because the process requires many big decisions that may have a major influence on your working life in the long term.
Most of us are probably familiar with visible laser light as a powerful beam of light, which is focused to a tight spot. There are several explanations for the characteristics of the laser light, each of which relates to the quality of the laser beam:
1 Unlike other types of lights, laser light has only one wavelength or a very narrow range of wavelengths
2 The beam can be focused so that the laser becomes extremely accurate
3 The intensity of the rays can vary, and this is called noise, though it has nothing to do with acoustic noise. It is not possible to completely remove the noise from a laser beam, but the lower the noise, the better the quality of the laser beam.
What Norlase's laser can do
Norlase can deliver laser beams on par with the best in the world regarding spectral (1) and spatial (2) properties. In particular, Norlase’s lasers have significantly less noise (3) compared to any other laser beams so far developed.
Norlase 's laser is thus of unprecedented high quality, and at the same time, the unit that produces radiation is very small. Compared to other systems that are as big as a large shoebox, Norlase 's device is the size of a household box of matches.
Norlase uses a nonlinear crystal to convert the infrared light from diode lasers into visible light. This is a radical new way of creating visible lasers.
Norlase 's lasers can, for instance, be used for
- · pumping energy into other types of lasers. In order for a laser to function, some kind of energy supply is necessary, and that can for example come from other lasers such as the one from Norlase
- · being built into measurement systems
- · light source in projectors
The lasers can also be used for medical diagnostics using images. For example, changes in the eye caused by diabetes are difficult to detect. Norlase's laser achieves excellent contrast in images of the retina due to the low noise of the laser beam. On Norlase's website you can see two images of the retina, where the lower image is a typical picture taken with current technology and the top image is taken with the help of Norlase's lasers.
The founding group consists of 11 people, all of whom have invested money in the company.
The CEO is Peter Skovgaard, who has experience with product development from other start-ups such as Kaleido Technology and Crystal Fibre (today NKT Photonics )
Paul Michael Petersen is head of the research group at DTU Fotonik, and is a member of the founding group.
Blue book, Jes Broeng, 43 years old
2012 - now: DTU Fotonik, Senior Advisor, Innovation
2009 - 2012 : NKT Photonics, Head of Department, Fiber Technology
2009 - 2012 : DTU Fotonik, Advisory Board Member
2001 - 2009 : Crystal Fibre A / S, Co-founder, R & D manager
2000 - 2001 : COM Centre, DTU, Post Doc
1996 - 2000 : Ph.D., "Photonic crystal fibers", DTU
1990 - 1996 : M.Sc., Technical University of Denmark
Jes has received several awards and honors for his research and innovation, including the European Optics Prize, Fellow of SPIE and membership of the ATV. He is married with Tea, who is a nurse and works with development projects in Rudersdal. Together they have four children: a boy of 11 years and triplets, two girls and a boy of 7.
For Jes the desire to deliver and integrate research with industry is a key driving force. "DTU is an excellent workplace in this regard - and I love DTU's slogan: We’re going to succeed!"
Blue book, Ole Bjarlin Jensen, 40 years old
2011 - present: Senior researcher at DTU Fotonik
2006 - 2010: Researcher at DTU Fotonik
2005 - 2006: Post Doc at Risø National Laboratory
2004 - 2004: Development Engineer at Risø National Laboratory
2002 - 2003: Development Engineer, Asah Medico A / S
1999 - 2002: Industrial PhD, PhD, Optics, DTU
1993 - 1999: Master of Science, Engineering, Technical University of Denmark
Ole has worked with diode lasers and nonlinear optics since he started at DTU Fotonik. He had many concerns about leaving DTU to become an entrepreneur in the establishment of Norlase. But he chose to stay in the creative research environment at the university.
He is married to Anette, Project Manager in a consulting engineering company and together they have a daughter of 11 and a son aged 8 years.