In this interview, Jose Pozo, EPICs CTO, talks to Florian Emaury, co-founder and CEO of Menhir Photonics AG, a Swiss company developing unique ultrafast lasers and photonics solutions.
After completing a BSc in Physics & Mathematics at Lycée Camille Guerin in France, in 2007, Florian earned an MSc in Fundamental Physics at Paris-Sud University (Paris XI) in conjunction with an MSc in Optics, Laser, Electronic, Computer sciences and Entrepreneurship at Institut d'Optique Graduate School in Paris.
After graduating in 2010, he spent the next 18 months as an intern, partly to see the world but also to broaden his mind on how small and large companies were commercializing laser-based technologies. The internships included 6 months at Fianium Inc., Southampton, UK (now acquired by NKT photonics A/S), working on characterizing and improving supercontinuum sources; 6 months at Coherent Inc., San José, California, USA working on ultra-short pulsed laser systems; and 5 months as a patent engineer at Hirsch & Partners, France, which involved drafting and prosecuting patents in areas such as telecommunications and photonics.
For Florian, these experiences confirmed two things. First, there were enormous opportunities for a start-up with the right ultrafast laser technology; and secondly, to be successful in this highly technical field, one needs to acquire cutting-edge technical know-how to spin it off into a company. To this end, in 2011, he began a PhD in Physics at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zürich), in the world-renowned laser group led by Prof. Ursula Keller.
Florian’s research focus was on the development of high repetition rate XUV sources based on thin disk oscillators. As Florian says: “While the work was both challenging and demanding, I appreciated the goal-oriented mindset of Ursula Keller’s group, which pushed us to achieve great things at the cutting edge of laser research. I also had the opportunity to travel to a lot of conferences, increase my visibility and to build an incredible network”.
After his PhD, Florian continued working in Ursula Keller’s group as a postdoc researcher focusing on applications of short-pulse lasers, which included the design and realization of a compact prototype and various multiphoton imaging experiments with biologists.
From 2016, he worked in a team of five people on the development of a business plan on this venture named MicPulse. With Florian as Managing Director, the aim was to explore ways of commercializing ultrafast low-cost lasers for medical applications in the fields of biomedical imaging and nonlinear optical experiments.
However, after 18 months, Florian concluded that although the market demand was present, the chosen technology and approach was not suitable to build a sustainable business. While it had been a great experience and a big opportunity for building up valuable networks, MicPulse’s target markets were too competitive and major players were already too far ahead. He began to search for alternative technologies, alternative applications and different markets to start a business.
In 2018, Florian teamed up with a complete and diverse team to set up Menhir Photonics. The company is a worldwide supplier of ultrafast lasers (picosecond and femtosecond lasers) and related photonics solutions. The company's lasers are used in numerous applications including synchronization electronics, microwave generation, telecommunication and material processing.
Upon startup, the idea was to develop another ultrafast laser technology for a completely different application: timing and precision for space and industrial applications. This is achieved by producing an extremely precise optical clock signal that is thousands of times more precise than electronics references. Initially, the target markets were aerospace and telecommunications with growing demand for higher speed and higher precision and lower noise for synchronizing devices using RF signals.
Florian knew from his previous experience with MicPulse that having the right team was a number one priority. To be sustainable, the company would require a complete set of expertise with different profiles ranging from sales, finances, technical to administration etc. As Florian explains: “ You can have a great technology and a great product, but you need to think of the big picture: you need a structure and working environment that will attract the right talent and provide sustainable career paths, enabling growth within the company”.
Menhir Photonics’ main product is the MENHIR-1550 SERIES, which is the first industrial-grade, femtosecond laser at 1550 nm with GHz repetition-rate. Its key features are the ultra-low phase noise and ability to work under harsh environmental conditions. These all-in-one systems are hermetically sealed and provide pulse repetition rates of up to 2.5 GHz.
As Florian explains: “We saw that many companies were providing 1550 lasers, but customers were not happy with the quality and robustness of these systems. With our new system, customers can be sure of a robust, high quality device that meets their needs for quality and performance, while achieving the lowest laser noise on the market”.
A laser is a complete system in itself but becomes a component when integrated into a full system. The MENHIR-1550 SERIES are in fact used in three main application fields:
Timing distribution for Free-Electron Lasers and particles accelerators: Ultra-stable distribution of timing signals is incredibly important for academic research infrastructures such as particle accelerators. Menhir Photonics’ systems can provide femtosecond level synchronization between accelerator components and laser systems.
Precision microwave generation: In recent years, the demand for ultra-low noise microwave (MW) and radio-frequency (RF) signal sources has gained more and more importance for both standard industrial applications and high-end academic experiments. Applications include radar systems, defense communications, satellite communications, photonic analog to digital converter, and coherent communications.
An optical frequency comb can be regarded as a ruler for optical frequencies. If the comb frequencies are known, other frequencies can be deduced by measuring beat notes. The modelocked lasers provided by Menhir Photonics offer a simple solution for achieving ultra-stable frequency-combs thanks to the intrinsic ultra-low laser noise and the GHz comb spacing. These frequency combs offer new possibilities for applications linked to ultra-stable clocking, optical spectroscopy and ranging.
With regard to specific areas of application, Menhir Photonics will continue its work on lasers and microwave sources for coherent radar detection and other types of applications where ultra-low noise RF and MW signals are key, such as the precise detection of drones and low-speed flying objects.
Another growth area will be the field of frequency combs for calibrating lidar systems for accurate spectroscopic analysis, particularly for measuring greenhouse gases. Menhir Photonics is currently working with a German partner on the development of a spaceborne calibration tool for satellite LIDAR systems.
Menhir Photonics will also continue their work in two specifics markets: space communications for satellites and laser sources for the timing distribution in particles accelerators. The new colliders (XFEL, SwissFEL, SLAC…) rely on extremely precise timing synchronization based on lasers like those provided by Menhir Photonics, to ensure that the interactions between the sample and x-ray and laser beams are synchronized properly.
Over the next five years, Menhir Photonics will continue to produce lasers but they will be considerably smaller – the size of a matchbox. The goal is to deliver 1000 units per month with fully automated production. The prices will be lower and additional markets will be supplied - bringing the precision of photonics to fields that are accustomed to working with electronics. One of Florian’s key aims is to sell to a new type of customer by targeting higher in the value chain – offering customers involved in integration with novel microwave (MW) sources based on photonics.
If you could start all over again what would you do differently?
“I’d do a lot of things the same: building a good team, staying focused on customer needs and satisfaction. But one thing I would probably do differently is to start earlier”.
What is your advice for the next generation entrepreneurs?
“First, set up a complete team and build a network. Do not focus purely on recruiting technical people because you will need personnel with business expertise who will bring in the money: the product won’t sell itself. As a CEO, you will need to focus on the business and see the whole picture and you’ll need to rely on your team for expert skills”.
“Second, acquire unique skills. Photonics is a green business and you will need to be able to understand your customers’ technical requirements. A PhD, for example, is important not only for acquiring technical competence but also for growing yourself and learning how to take initiatives and responsibilities to climb the ladder”.
“Third, stay focused on customer needs and satisfaction. The customer is always key, and you always need validation from the market to be sure that your vision fits with what the market wants and that someone is willing to pay for it.
Written by Jose Pozo, Director of Technology and Innovation at EPIC (European Photonics Industry Consortium)