New production facility speeds up global growth at Tampere laser cluster3.5.2023
A rapidly growing cluster of semiconductor and laser technology companies has developed in Tampere's Laser Valley in Rusko. This week, a laser production facility was inaugurated in the area. Here, semiconductor and laser technology companies Vexlum, Picophotonics and RefleKron will develop and manufacture their new solutions for the global laser market.
Their solutions are in high demand to solve future challenges related to the development of quantum computers, self-driving vehicles, intelligent industrial manufacturing methods and other important technologies.
The companies are all spin-offs of the Tampere University Optoelectronics Research Centre, ORC. Around 250 industry professionals are already working in the Rusko area, developing top-class laser technology to satisfy the growing needs of various businesses.
"The companies in the new production facility are the fruits of long-term research and technology investments," says a happy Mircea Guina, professor of optoelectronics at the University of Tampere. He has for decades conducted pioneering research in the field and has been involved in founding all three companies.
Tampere is already one of the main centres for semiconductor expertise in Europe. The new production facility accelerates this development further,” Guina elaborates.
New solutions for critical sectors
Founded in 2017, Vexlum develops and sells lasers for quantum computers based on ions and atoms. With its potential to multiply the current computing power, quantum computing is considered an important field of the future.
"Our VECSEL laser technology serves as a tool for the quantum gold rush. In the future, the most important applications of quantum computers may be related to for example medical simulations or climate models," says CEO Jussi-Pekka Penttinen from Vexlum.
The company's customers include the world's top universities and companies that manufacture quantum computers. One hundred per cent of the production is exported. The company's lasers also have growth potential in other applications, e.g., in medicine and the manufacturing industry. Expanding into these sectors could mean growth in the 100-million-euro turnover category, which the company is aiming for.
RefleKron produces semiconductor saturable absorber mirrors (SESAMs), a key component required for the industrial production of ultrafast lasers. Founded in 2004, the company has been an important part of the development of commercial ultrafast lasers. The market for these lasers has matured and diversified during recent years, and lasers produced by RefleKron's customers – the world's leading manufacturers of ultrafast lasers – are now used in many fields. The lasers are used, for example, in eye surgery, the production of solar panels, the machining of metal components processed with micrometre precision, and the cutting of mobile phone screens.
"In the current SESAM market, we can achieve a million-euro turnover,” estimates Chief Operations Officer at RefleKron Eero Koivusalo.
There are clear signs that the market for ultrafast lasers will grow significantly. The new premises enable RefleKron to take a leading position.
Picophotonics started in 2015 and makes microchip lasers, which can be used to increase measurement speed in various applications. Its customers include companies that use microscopy applications, range-finding and LIDAR laser scanners. LIDAR laser scanning can be used, for example, in self-driving vehicles or terrain mapping. Microchips are also utilised in cancer research.
With microchip technology, we can make a matchbox-sized device that competes with shoebox-sized components. We offer good optical properties in a small size cost-effectively, which is a clear competitive advantage in many applications, Picophotonics CEO Antti Penttinen notes.
Joint investments boost growth
The companies operating in the Rusko production facility have all doubled their turnover in recent years and their growth continues. The combined turnover estimate for 2023 is around 3 million euros, which is a significant result considering that the companies' products are just arriving on the market.
"Each company has its own products and customer base, so we don't compete with each other. Instead, we share the needs for premises and equipment," Vexlum CEO Jussi-Pekka Penttinen says about the background of the joint production facility.
The possibility of joint investments and shared risk-taking offers opportunities for growth for everyone.
Completed in 2022, the premises already house laser production, and the companies' goal is to further increase production volume and self-sufficiency with the help of new semiconductor investments.
So far, the largest joint investment of the companies has been the molecular-beam epitaxy, or MBE reactor, used to manufacture semiconductor devices.
The companies currently rent the space needed for chip production from the university, but when their new processing cleanroom is ready, this work phase will also be moved to the new production facilities. The value of the investment in semiconductor production, including the MBE reactor and cleanroom, exceeds 5 million euros.
Strengthening European chip self-sufficiency
Highly specialised technologies have traditionally been a strength of the Tampere region. The strong global demand for semiconductors and lasers is currently creating new opportunities for expertise in the area.
The new production facility is a great example of Tampere’s truly competitive research and commercialisation potential in the semiconductor industry," says Director of Investments and Global Operations at Business Tampere Harri Ojala.
"The semiconductor market is currently transforming, and companies are learning to utilise new technologies in the development of their products. It is valuable that the Laser Valley companies develop pioneering products and thus benefit from the growth of the industry. We will see big breakthroughs,” foresees Ojala.
The field is further developed by the Chips from Finland initiative, run by the Semiconductors branch group of the lobbying organisation Technology Industries of Finland, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, University of Tampere, Aalto University, the cities of Tampere and Espoo as well as business partners. The project is linked to EU regulation aiming to strengthen Europe's chip self-sufficiency and technological safety.
The parties involved in the Chips from Finland initiative have prepared to apply for funding from the EU, so they can create new pilot lines and expertise clusters in Finland. This would combine expertise in system circuits, semiconductor and laser technology as well as chip manufacturing even more closely, creating new opportunities for chip manufacturing.
The now-opened laser production facility shows that persistent work and a clear vision can make Finland a significant player in semiconductor-based hi-tech.