Free-spoken photonics personality
He is one of Sweden's more renowned professors - beyond the limits of the world of research too. For many years, he was known as "Optoman" on the IT powers-that-be list produced by Sweden's Ny Teknik magazine. He is well-known for more than just his research. He participates with great eloquence in discussions, especially concerning Swedish research policies. This is Lars Thylén – professor of photonics and microwave engineering.
Professor Lars Thylén can look back on a successful research career in the field of photonics, where he has worked actively since the pioneering days of the late 70s. However, it could have been a career in microelectronics and systems development for him in the 1970s.
Professor Thylén relates, “I moved to Ericsson in 1982 to work with integrated photonics. We were one of the first companies to work with fibre optics and the new field of integrated optics in Sweden. Ericsson was a fantastic organisation in those days. I have always been lucky in working alongside people who are more knowledgeable than me.
Lars Thylén has therefore been able to follow developments in the field of optics in Sweden right from the start in the mid 70s. He has been able to watch its growth and progress and was also there during the golden age at the turn of the millennium... and he was also there when the bubble burst a few years later. There was in fact a photonics bubble alongside the more famous IT bubble.
Professor Thylén explains, "During those golden days, incredible sums of money were pumped into the photonics field, even here in Sweden. It was a completely different era. But the Altitun and Qeyton mega deals were a singular event.
Behind the hysterical mood was the operators' relatively sudden need for increased capacity for optical fibre data transfer. New technology, so-called wavelength multiplexing, could solve this need and everyone was competing to be biggest and best. And all of a sudden huge sums of money were being invested into the field. And things came just as suddenly to a halt a few years into the 2000s.
"But there was also an IT bubble that burst at about the same time," explains Professor Lars Thylén. "The bubble held a number of companies without any real substance. It was different for the photonics bubble. There were excellent R&D and new products in that bubble but unfortunately far too many operators for a market that gradually withered. One explanation I heard recently is that the operators spent too much on 3G licences."
The field of photonics is starting to recover in what is hopefully a less hysterical era. Ericsson, which sold its photonics business, is now re-entering the field through its acquisition of Marconi's optical networking business. A highly strategic acquisition, Lars Thylén points out.
"Our relationship with Ericsson deteriorated in 1999 when we launched Optillion, partly because Ericsson lost personnel to Optillion. The discord this created remained for many years. But, we are pleased to say that our relationship with Ericsson has improved considerably over the past few years," Lars Thylén comments.
Not just telecom
During the peak of this golden age, photonics focused mainly on applications for the telecom industry. Scientists today are becoming interested in other areas too. It is thought that about one third of the research relates to telecom applications. The rest relates to other applications in the areas of lighting, display and the exciting field of biophotonics.
Lars Thylén explains "Rather than focusing so much on telecom-related photonics these days, I am more involved in generic photonics. This covers aspects such as photonics for medical use, sensors and so on.
KTH has benefited from the excellent contacts I made during my visit to the HP labs in Palo Alto in the spring of 2008. A closer look at the way a multinational company operates and how it works with state-of-the-art IT technology has provided many interesting insights. The transparency across the company was also impressive."
However, photonics scientists are also keen to challenge traditional electronics - convinced that we are moving towards "an optical future”. Photonics 21 is a European initiative bringing photonics scientists from all over Europe together to investigate new paths for photonics.
"Photonics is the future when it comes to computer connection technology," asserts Professor Thylén. Optical engineering will be the technology of the future. We will soon be seeing server systems that use this new technology.
Professor Lars Thylén likes building networks. He is certain it creates a stronger base for photonics. Naturally, he is involved in Photonics 21, the European initiative launched in 2005 that aims to transfer promising research findings into successful industrial activities. The initiative involves collaboration between European industrial and academic partners. He has also helped start up two photonics research centres, the Kista Photonic Research Center (KPRC) and the Joint Research Center of Photonics (JORCEP) run collaboratively by KTH and Zhejiang University in Hang Zhou. Both centres are of considerable international importance since they put us on the map, Lars explains.
"The Kista Photonic Research Center opened in 2002, just about the same time as photonics started running into problems," Lars remarks. "KTH and Acreo fund the centre where there are almost 100 photonics scientists. We haven't yet been able to exploit its full potential."
Lars Thylén has been involved in the start-up of two companies in the field of photonics. Optillion was established during the golden age but went into liquidation a few years later for the simple reason that the market had collapsed. It was no longer a viable going concern.
Professor Thylén emphasises that "Although Optillion went into liquidation, getting to know the start-up world was still a valuable experience. In 2002, I was part of the team that set up PhoXtal and am now on its board of directors. Our company is focused on developing photonics components for fibre to the home.
Lars Thylén has passed the age of 60, an age at which many people start to slow down prior to retirement. Lars, however, shows no signs of waning enthusiam for photonics. However, it is rather natural at his age to start summarising what you've done and what will follow. And Lars is doing just that.
"I want to finish what I'm working on, i.e. my research into integrated photonics and small photonic circuits. We started with this back in the early 80s and are now at the cutting edge of developments. New meta materials are our challenge in the future.
Lars Thylén is concerned about funding. Only one grant was allocated from SSF (the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research) funds last spring. In his view, research funding bodies have no strategy for the field of photonics.
"We have done well. But sadly it hasn't generated much money," Professor Thylén explains. "We can boast a good track record and have received funds from SSF and Linnéstöd, but we do have problems. Half of our grant disappeared this year. And I don't really understand why.
The FMI research team, photonics with microwave engineering, is therefore experiencing major financial difficulties. Lars, however, has a strategy for solving the problem. Another problem is regrowth.
Lars Thylén frequently participates in debates on Swedish research funding. He's not shy about expressing strong critisicm over the current system.
Lars maintains "These days, there is too much "show business" about the whole application process. It's not enough to be a good scientist, you have to be a good salesman and presenter too. The application process also steals too much time from research. I sometimes find myself devoting half my time to the process."
PhD in Applied Physics in 1982 at KTH
1987 Adjunct Professor at KTH
1992 Professor of Photonics and Microwave Engineering at KTH
1994 KTH in Kista
Startup companies: PhoXtal, Fuyang Photonics in China, Optillion