The Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton expands its long term collaboration with industry to keep the £12.9bn UK photonics industry growing at 5% annually.

The World Wide Web and the Internet would not operate on a global scale at their capacity and speed were it not for innovations in photonics. Mobile phones, laptop computers, large data centres, medical procedures and devices, automobiles, and many other products and services we all use daily are critically dependent on photonics.

The UK is a world leader in photonics technology, being home to the largest cluster of photonics companies and research organisations. Over 65,000 people are employed in UK photonics manufacturing and over 75% of its output is exported. The Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton has significantly contributed to the UK’s photonics development for six decades and collaborates with high tech companies, ranging from aerospace (BAE Systems) to IT and data storage (Microsoft, Seagate), communications (Huawei, Rockley Photonics) and manufacturing (SPI Lasers).

“We wanted to work with ORC researchers because of their formidable track record in fibre laser development, the world-class facilities they have at their fingertips and their pioneering attitude to problem solving.” Professor Gérard Mourou, International Centre for Zetta-Exawatt Science and Technology Director

Photonics at the University of Southampton goes back to the early 1960s when our researchers worked on ground-breaking developments in fabricating optical fibres and understanding the fundamentals of how to generate laser light. The ORC is the largest and longest-established research centre for photonics in the UK. It has over 200 staff and PhD students and a research portfolio of over £50m. The ORC continues to develop its commercial partnerships with large and small businesses resulting in industrial funding of over £3m each year. An average of 10 patents annually are generated and are licensed to collaborators for commercialisation.

The ORC has recently received HEFCE Catalyst funding to develop a much-needed skills programme for the photonics industry in support of the Industrial Strategy. The ORC has for many years been very active in STEM outreach to future students in photonics and broader science and engineering subjects.

ORC research has led to the formation of more than 10 successful spin-out companies including SPI Lasers, Lumenisity, Covesion and Fibercore. Most of these spin-outs continue to have substantial operations in Southampton’s ‘photonics valley’, forming a photonics cluster which continues to look to the ORC for innovations. Consequently there are more specialty fibre drawing towers in this cluster of companies than anywhere else in the world.

The University’s £120m cleanroom facilities make the ORC highly distinctive on the world stage, as does its encouragement of enterprise. ORC scientists have a unique ability to turn their research into practical, commercial uses, delivering benefits to society and the economy in areas including communications, manufacturing and medicine. They can see their work go all the way from the lab to the assembly line, making new fibres, emitters, and circuits, developing new devices based on those components, testing these in a system and starting a company to produce it. Very few universities have this vertically-integrated capability: from photonics to production.


This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.