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Optica Corporate Member Profile - Sphere Ultrafast Photonics

Samantha Hornback, Research & Program Development Coordinator, Optica

Sphere Ultrafast Photonics, based in Porto, Portugal, specializes in its own technology for ultrafast pulse measurement and control, called d-scan. The technology’s wide range of applications is supported by the expertise of an international group of scientists and engineers. Optica sat down with Rosa Romero, CEO, and Helder Crespo, CTO, to learn more. Below is our edited conversation.

What's the value proposition for Sphere Ultrafast Photonics? What markets does the company serve?

RR: Sphere Ultrafast Photonics offers a new generation of products and services for ultrafast pulsed laser systems and applications. We offer a completely new device based on a new technology called the d-scan technology. D-scan enables high-performance measurement and control of ultrafast laser systems.

HC: We serve a global market of research laboratories, university laboratories, and laser manufacturers. We also serve a very important sub-market: nonlinear microscopy for biomedical imaging. It's a big market both in terms of clinical settings and research, and we now have specially designed systems for this purpose.

Can you talk a bit about how your company was founded and how it has developed over the years?

HC: The key technology was developed through a partnership between the University of Porto in Portugal and Lund University in Sweden. Miguel Miranda [of Porto] is the first author of the very first dispersion scan paper and the first inventor in the corresponding patent. I thought the technology was too important to be left as a paper, so I pursued creating a company. Now, we do a lot of our development within the company, but we retain a strong connection with academia.

RR: The company was really founded as part of a group effort, with scientists from Porto and Lund. Helder made the initial moves to found the company, and he got me involved early on. Between the two of us, we've combined two specific skill sets that work together.

HC: Over the last few years, the company has been growing in terms of physical space, number of people and market. Also, there is a very strong collaboration in terms of people, projects and ideas between Sphere, the University of Porto, and Lund University.

Where do you expect Sphere to be in 10 years?

RR: I would like to be the industry standard for pulse temporal diagnostics. We also hope that in 10 years, Sphere will see greater market share. We are working on developing the business for mass market applications, for example, the two-photon microscopy market. But this growth has been slow in the recent few years due to the pandemic.

What, in your view, is the best decision that Sphere has made to date?

RR: At the beginning, we were a very small company, and due to a lack of resources, we were considering outsourcing much of our work. Outsourcing can be tricky and limit the agility and innovation within a company. Knowing this, we made the very important decision to keep our technology inside, and this has been extremely beneficial.

HC: I agree. We managed to keep the technology inside and protect it with patents, of which we now have a portfolio of eight. Another good decision was to stay in Porto, where we started, and where the University is only a 10-minute walk away. That lets us keep up our collaboration.

How about the worst, or riskiest, decision?

RR: We've certainly made some risky decisions. We are very motivated to try new things and new challenges, to accept very difficult orders from clients. They have challenged us to develop systems with certain specifications beyond the state-of-the-art. So far we have successfully delivered all these new developments, but it is always a risky decision to take.

HC: I would also add that whenever we visit a lab, we bring a product and let the scientists try out the technology. The field we're in is extremely complex, and with this approach we are risking a lot because there are many things that can go wrong. I believe this is not the conventional approach: It is a bit like how people go buy a new car, but here, they are able to test-drive our technology.

Tell me a bit about your personal career path. How did you get to this point?

HC: I took a path, which is, I would say, more or less conventional. I did my undergraduate studies and PhD in Lisbon, Portugal. I then came to Porto to be an assistant professor, and later, I did a postdoc at MIT. When my work with Miguel and the d-scan technology started to look like more than just a paper, I ended up talking with a colleague at the university, and we discussed what the next steps were. Initially, I was concerned that it would be too much work to find the right people, but he told me, "sometimes those people are closer to you than you think." And it turned out that Rosa is actually married to a colleague of mine at the Department of Physics. Since then, we've been working together at Sphere.

RR: Basically, what I would like to do is to solve problems and provide solutions to people to make their lives easier. This has motivated me through my MSc, PhD and postdoctoral research. I started to work in industry because I could not see a path for me in academia. I wanted to deliver something to the society that could benefit from my work. Eventually, I went to do an MBA because I thought maybe this is good for business and new opportunities. That was when Helder approached me and framed the d-scan technology as an opportunity like the one I was looking for. Starting a company, that could deliver the d-scan technology to the world so everyone could measure and control their ultrafast laser system, was very exciting for me so we stablished the company Sphere Photonics after a few months.

Sphere Ultrafast Photonics is an Optica Corporate member. What do you see as the value of that membership?

RR: I think the value is the networking. That is really valuable for us to go to meetings and network with people from other companies. I also like the idea of having access to Optica’s journals, which is also very convenient, but I would say that the most beneficial thing is the networking so far.

HC: I think also whether you like to admit it or not, it's a recognition, and it's invariably related to quality because of its strong scientific connection. So that brings together a lot of things important for this market. A young company like Sphere can significantly benefit from the visibility we gain by being Optica Corporate members. We're part of the club, let's say.

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