30.09.2021 - Photonics and Smart materials

Investments double in Latvia-based smart materials and photonics companies

Latvia's smart materials and photonics industry has been punching above its weight on the global stage and shows no signs of slowing, seeing over 40% growth in exports over the last 5 years, reaching 90M EUR in 2020. The steady growth has not gone unnoticed, with yearly external investments more than doubling from 16M EUR in 2016 to 40M EUR in 2020 over the same period, investigated investinlatvia.org.

This is not the merit of a single breakout success story or an individual unicorn, but rather the result of sustained long-term development of the industry ecosystem on a national scale. 

Latvia boasts a historically strong collaborative infrastructure that accelerates idea development and commercialization by connecting business, academia, and government through various support programs, networks, and grants. This united approach, paired with the populace's natural inclination and talents for the STEM field, has helped Latvia establish itself as a global player in the development and manufacturing of functional materials, photonics equipment and devices, and thin layers and coatings.

You'll come across Latvian innovations in every corner of the world and beyond with Groglass' anti-reflective glass that displays the most precious exhibits and showcases around the world, and Sidrabe's thin-film technologies used by NASA to coat astronaut helmets. Lightguide boasts the world's leading optical fiber production lab and provides ~70% of all fiber optic instruments used in urology and Baltic Scientific Instruments is one of only 3 companies worldwide specializing in the development and fabrication of devices for spectrometric analysis based on semiconductor and scintillation radiation detectors.

Unveiled labs, awards won, funding received – highlights from 2021

Well-established supply chains, an excellent ecosystem, and supportive legislation serve to accelerate local scientific advancement and the commercialization thereof, while also being a major point of attraction to both new home-grown projects, as well as international players and projects. 

2021 saw Pulsar Optics, a subsidiary of Yukon Advanced Optics Worldwide, launch their operations in Daugavpils, looking to manufacture over 40,000 units of optical devices per year for export to more than 70 countries worldwide. The company is also actively investing in and developing image processing software and artificial intelligence. 

The production of their Pulsar devices employs cutting-edge technologies and modern engineering techniques, which is why access to qualified specialists was a key factor in choosing Latvia. Other reasons included Latvia's geographical location, a favorable climate for investments, and supportive governmental institutions. 

Indeed, a major point of attraction for Yukon Advanced Optics Worldwide and other regional and international companies is Latvia's deep talent pool. With over a century of experience in smart materials and photonics engineering and manufacturing, a legion of tenured experts, and a steady influx of young specialists (Latvia is 7th in the world in the number of students entering STEM), Latvia's scientists and researchers are a cornerstone of the country's ability to compete internationally.

Beyond contributing to the growth of international companies, Latvia also boasts a thriving scene of local up-and-coming projects and scientific innovations with potential for global impact.

A consortium led by Latvian company Exonicus recently won a European Defense Industry Development Program project competition, receiving over 2M EUR in funding for the development of an innovative virtual trauma simulator called VireTS, which will be used for education and training of students and military medical personnel. VireTS allows participants to experience and engage virtually with a limitless number of life-like trauma scenarios enabling relevant personnel to prepare for field scenarios. Exonicus is behind both the AI-powered software and the deployable hardware.  

Meanwhile, Latvian smart materials start-up Catalyco claimed first place at the sTARTUp Day 2021 “Nordic Pitch Match” competition for their production of high surface area zinc oxides with reduced impurities, which allow reducing the use of ZnO up to 5 times, making tire and rubber production both more sustainable and cost-effective. Beyond the tire and rubber industry, this innovation that's based on more than 30 years of research and development has far-reaching implications for the ceramics, glass, and chemical industries, as well. 

Catalyco is a company borne out of the Commercialization Reactor accelerator—one of three accelerators in Latvia (Buildit, Overkill Ventures)—that places particular focus on scientifically intensive deep-tech projects. Through various regionally significant initiatives such as the Deep-Tech Atelier conference, Roadmap to Your Smart Business masterclasses, and the Ignition matchmaking event, Commercialization Reactor helps early-stage startups unlock the commercial potential of their innovations. 

An ecosystem designed for excellence

Latvia's smart materials and photonics industry has been continuously evolving over more than 50 years, adapting to global trends, perfecting collaborative systems, and growing its value-chains. The result is a modern, healthy, and comprehensive ecosystem that supports product development and manufacturing from idea inception to industrial production. 

Made possible by a strong academic foundation, abundant state-of-the-art research facilities, modern production capabilities, and numerous support systems, the industry's companies and exceptional research institutions offer and make use of everything from R&D services, testing, and characterization, to prototyping and small-scale production, as well as industrialization and up-scaling services. 

A central hub connecting science and business is the University of Latvia's (UL) Institute of Solid State Physics (ISSP)—the top materials research and innovation center in the Baltics—and its platform Materize. With 40 years of experience and a team of 300 employees, Materize serves to bridge the gap between laboratory and market for SMEs and large companies alike, making scientific expertise beneficial to business through a single point of contact. 

The ISSP itself is home to a unique micro- and nano-technology center, with more than 650 sq. meters of ISO-certified cleanrooms. It actively works with companies and researchers on the development of new sensors, light sources, photonics and electronic devices, as well as microfluidic devices for biology and medical applications. 

The link between businesses and researchers is strengthened further by technology scouts. Experts in their field and up-to-date with all the latest local developments and innovations, technology scouts connect businesses with the relevant organizations and researchers best positioned to answer a company's scientific needs. Simultaneously, tight collaboration with research institutions allows technology scouts to identify smart materials and photonics projects with potential for commercialization and assist in bringing them to market.  

So, what ongoing research projects are technology scouts excited about today? There are 3 that stand out. 

The Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis (LIOS) has developed a conceptually new approach for ensuring high emission intensities in solids. The new concept is based on the use of intermolecular electrostatic interactions in the design of luminescent molecules, well-known in organic chemistry, but not yet used in the field of optical materials. 

Meanwhile, the University of Latvia's Institute of Atomic Physics and Spectroscopy is making strides in biophotonics, working on non-invasive methods and devices for early detection of skin cancer and the classification of skin lesions, employing multispectral diffuse reflection and autofluorescence imaging combined with neural network analysis. The team is also working on the early detection of sepsis using multispectral imaging methods.

Opportunities for reducing vision discomfort using 3D images have been explored through the collaboration of the private and academic industries. Using a volumetric 3D display developed by local deep-tech startup LightSpace Technologies, the UL’s Faculty of Physics, Mathematics, and Optometry in collaboration with Riga Stradiņš University’s Faculty of Medicine were able to explore the visual system’s behavior when interacting with the technology.

Latvia – a window into the future

Latvia's world-leading high-impact research paired with well-developed commercialization and extensive industry expertise make Latvia a particularly attractive region for developing and launching projects in the smart materials and photonics sector, as shown by the sustained growth in related export and investments. 

Smart materials and photonics is one of five smart industries identified as a priority sector by the Latvian government. As part of the recently-launched Green Channel initiative, businesses looking to develop in this sector are eligible for priority support from national institutions in regard to construction, spatial planning, and migration matters. Meanwhile, larger projects can receive direct and comprehensive financial and coordination support from the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia.

Investors looking to benefit from the research, development, or manufacturing phases of smart materials and photonics solutions, can enquire about the respective opportunities by contacting Zane Čerpakovska, the LIAA smart materials and photonics technology scout, at Zane.Cerpakovska@liaa.gov.lv

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