Focus on research: Prof Peter O’Brien, IPIC

Prof Peter O'Brien, IPIC
Prof Peter O'Brien, IPIC

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22 November 2016 | 0

Backed by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Photonic Integration Centre (IPIC) is home to 100 researchers at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork. Centre Deputy Director Prof Peter O’Brien spoke to TechCentral.ie about the centre,  its contribution to university life and his own work on promoting gender equality in STEM subjects.

You’ve moved from academia to industry and back again over your career. What brought you to IPIC?
I completed my Degree in Physics at TCD and then moved to UCC to do a Masters in Microelectronic Engineering, followed by a PhD in Physics (development of high power semiconductor lasers). After completing my PhD, I moved to California where I was a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology, and a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (development of microwave devices for remote sensing). Most of my time had been spent in semiconductor cleanrooms, fabricating photonic and microwave devices, and I was keen to apply my research skills to emerging applications in telecommunications and biotechnology.

I moved back to Ireland to take a position at Tyndall, establishing a new research group in microfluidics and biophotonics. During this time, I saw the commercial potential of this technology, and decided to set-up my own company developing speciality optical systems for medical and pharmaceutical applications. I quickly developed my business skills, which have benefitted me, even when managing a large research group.

The business was a success, but I decided my future was in research, so I successfully sold the business and returned to Tyndall to establish the Photonic Packaging Group. That was in 2009, and we have since built a group with an international reputation for developing advanced photonic sub-systems, collaborating with multiple academic and industrial partners across the world. A key benchmark of our international reputation was the recent selection of our group to manage Europe’s Photonic Packaging Pilot Line, a 15 million investment by the European Commission to support next-generation integrated photonic technologies and scale-up to manufacture.

You were recently honoured by UCC for your contribution to University life and the photonics packaging team won research team of the year. How important are awards like these from an IPIC perspective?
We gratefully received the award from UCC, especially as it is a team award, and this reflects the spirit of teamwork and collaboration within the group. There is a significant amount of competition between research groups across the world to hire the best candidates, and a positive working environment helps attract good candidates. I believe the UCC award reflects this positive and technical challenging working environment. The award also highlights the ability to collaborate with industry, working on applied research, while also developing a more basic and long-term research programme.

IPIC’s mission statement emphasises the use of photonics in two major areas: networking and healthcare. What kind of advances are we seeing here?
From our perspective in photonic packaging, we are seeing a big move towards manufacturing. Integrated photonics has the potential to address large markets across a diverse range of applications (eg telecoms, sensors and medical devices). However, there are major challenges with manufacturing these highly integrated photonic devices.

Much of our research is directed at developing packaging solutions that can be implemented in a high-volume manufacturing environment. For example, there is a drive to develop semiconductor wafer-scale packaging processes, where optics and electronics are assembled on the integrated photonic device en-masse at the wafer-level, avoiding the need to do this in the individual package. This presents fundamental scientific and engineering challenges, and our group has evolved over the past few years to include researchers with a theoretical scientific background who address more fundamental aspects of integrated photonic devices, and how they can interface with advanced packaging technologies.

The new Photonics Packaging Pilot Line will go a long way in helping us address these emerging manufacturing challenges, ensuring we can develop novel technologies that can be brought to market.

Based on the recent Making Light Work report, photonics is very much a growth industry. Do you think this gives IPIC researchers more latitude when it comes to pursuing projects?
Yes, IPIC has a critical advantage, as it has the ability to develop fully working photonic prototypes, and transfer them to manufacture. This not only benefits our industry partners, but enables IPIC researchers, especially our young researchers, bring their research to life through developing working demonstrators which can seed new business ventures.

This unique aspect definitely helps create and support more spin-out and start-up successes. We also have put a huge focus on training in the Centre in order to develop and foster an entrepreneurial culture in IPIC which supports exciting ideas and inventions generated by our researchers, in particular by the junior members of the team.

Last year, we ran the IPIC Bootcamp in conjunction with SFI and the NDRC where over 20 individuals from across Ireland embarked on a six-month programme to explore the commercial potential of their photonics based technology or idea. The bootcamp exposed the participants to an experienced team of venture acceleration specialists and trainers who provided a programme of training in areas such as customer development, business model development, market opportunity analysis and investor pitch preparation.

On the back of this successful programme, we are launching another bootcamp in January 2017. We are also involved in bringing the European Photonics Venture Forum (EPVF) to Dublin – an event that brings high-tech photonics entrepreneurs looking for external private capital, together with investors across Europe. This certainly will increase Ireland’s visibility in photonics start-ups and will hopefully see investment in the Irish photonics start-up sector.

You are a vocal advocate for gender equality in the sciences. How did you get involved in this area and what has impressed you the most about the progress being made?
Firstly, I believe in equal opportunity for all, and secondly, I see a lack of qualified women in STEM. To address this, we need to encourage more young girls to consider a career in science and engineering. This should result in more gender balance, which definitely makes for a better workplace.

However, this will take a number of years to implement, so we also need to look at more near-term initiatives. One such initiative is the SFI Advance Award. My group participated in this programme, hiring Dr Huihui Lu to work on a research topic for two years. Huihui had little experience in photonics, but during these two years she demonstrated an ability to develop new skills in photonics, which greatly enhanced her biotech expertise. This included publishing her research in international peer review journals (eg. Optics Express and SPIE Photonics West). Huihui is now a member of the Biophotonics group at Tyndall, led by Prof. Stefan Andersson-Engels.

I believe this clearly demonstrates the success of this SFI programme, and should be an inspiration to other women. I am also a member of the Athena Swan steering committee at UCC, and we recently were awarded a Bronze Award.

IPIC also supports numerous outreach activities, in Ireland and across the world. For example, this and last summer we sponsored one of our postdoctoral researchers to visit Tanzania to help organise their Young Scientist competition. I believe our group has the ability to contribute more than just research, and this definitely creates a better working environment for all.

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