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Key sectors

Applied technologies

Major innovative projects = healthy economy

Optics/photonics in the Quebec City region
Seeing clearer… and farther

Discoveries in the field of optics have expanded the frontiers of human knowledge since earliest antiquity. Famous figures like Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy, together with Khmer, Chinese and Mayan scientists, laid the foundations of optical geometry.

Optics/photonics in Quebec City
  • 35 companies
  • 3,900 jobs (78% of Canadian experts in the field reside in Quebec)
  • Revenues: CA$475 million
  • 8 research centres (CA$110 million annual operating budget)
  • 900 research jobs
  • Increase in number of jobs (2004-2006): 27%

Institutes /research centres

Thanks to Galileo’s and Newton’s telescopes, the 17th century opened a window onto infinity and paved the way for a series of discoveries that led to Einstein’s work on photons. The area of optics/photonics has revolutionized our knowledge and mastery of the world: we can observe atoms, see at night and create 3D digital images using hand-held scanners. This inexhaustible field of innovation has become a key economic development tool in the 21st century, particularly in Quebec City.

In 1608, Quebec City’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, crossed the Atlantic using a mariner’s astrolabe (from the Greek astrolabos meaning “star taking”), a device used by Arab astronomers as early as the 7th century. The quintessential explorer and discoverer, Champlain put his scientific knowledge to good use by producing the first accurate maps of what is now the US Northeast, from the waters of Nantucket to the Great Lakes.

In the modern era, Quebec was a major participant in the top-secret race to develop high-power lasers. In the late 1960s, Quebec City was the epicentre of a discovery that proved crucial to the development of the optics/photonics industry. At the time, DRDC-Valcartier was home to a research team headed by physicist Jacques Beaulieu, who developed the world’s first CO2 laser. Recognized as one of the landmark discoveries in the history of lasers by the European Network of Optics and Photonics Training Institutes, the “world’s most powerful laser” remained under wraps until derivative products were marketed in 1970, most notably by Gentec, which promoted the first transversely excited atmospheric pressure (TEA) CO2 lasers.

Jacques Beaulieu’s discovery acted as a catalyst for the industry, as did that of another physicist, Henry Buijs, who developed a technology used to measure the precise state of the ozone layer. Dr. Buijs went on to found Bomem, which now operates as ABB Analytics, a leader in the area of spatial spectrometers and a division of the Swiss multinational ABB. In parallel with these developments, Professor Albéric Boivin of Laval University’s physics department, who has conducted basic optics/photonics research since the 1950s, passed on his passion to several of his students, who become professors themselves and formed a related research group.

The Quebec City region found itself in the midst of a boom fuelled by market-oriented research. Dr. Jean-Guy Paquet (then Vice-Rector of Research and subsequently Rector of Laval University) sought to forge closer ties between training and research centres and socio-economic stakeholders and was thus the architect of the sector’s accelerated development throughout the region. By the early 1980s, Laval University was training nearly 50% of Canada’s optics and photonics researchers. At the 1984 regional economic summit, Dr. Paquet piloted the creation of the National Optics Institute as well as a high-tech park based on the facility in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Steady growth

In 1985, EXFO, a major player in the regional optics/photonics sector and a world authority in the area of telecom testing and measurement equipment, set up operations in Quebec City. EXFO went on to develop its own R&D; department and contributed numerous innovations over the years. This marked the beginning of two decades of steady growth spurred by a highly dynamic industrial cluster.

Resulting from consultations involving various regional partners in late 1985, the INO became one of the first tenants at Quebec Metro High Tech Park. The INO truly embodies the Park’s founding ideals: since it began operations, it has launched 24 spinoff companies, carried out 39 technology transfers to industry and signed nearly 4,000 service contracts in fields as diverse as aerospace, agrifood, biomedical, defence, security and surveillance, manufacturing, transportation, environmental services, optics/photonics, natural resources, information technology, communications and telecommunications.

Intensive research

Strengthening the multi-disciplinary approach it had adopted 20 years previously, Laval University established the Centre for Optics, Photonics and Laser Technology (COPL) in 1989—the largest university research centre of its kind in Canada. In 2007, the university completed construction of the Optics and Photonics Building, which boasts one-of-a-kind research infrastructure and ranks among the world’s top facilities. COPL was the driving force behind the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations (a network of centres of excellence encompassing 20 universities) and is currently overseeing the establishment of the School of Advanced Optics and Photonics Studies.

Sector viability

Although 80% of California’s high-tech startups do not survive to “cross the chasm”, the vast majority of optics/photonics startups in the Quebec City region are still in business and occupy strategic positions in their operating markets.

Emboldened by its 50-year record of success, Quebec City’s optics/photonics sector has lost none of its vitality. It continues to attract the best and the brightest thinkers and creators, along with innovative companies like EXFO, Gentec, ABB Bomem, Creaform and TeraXion. The Optics/Photonics Industry Circle (CIOP) seeks to stimulate sector growth by sharing high-tech information on best practices, business opportunities, technology transfers and training/labour needs with research centres, companies and industry stakeholders grouped into communities of interest.

Today, Quebec City’s optics/photonics sector is made up of approximately 30 companies and eight research centres. With the creation of the Quebec Metro High Tech Park, an industry dedicated to the knowledge economy has emerged, in line with 21st century social issues. But the work is not finished yet: thanks to the efforts of regional researchers, our perception of the universe may be about to change radically with the development of a liquid mirror capable of withstanding intense lunar cold and producing images 100 to 1,000 times more accurate than those provided by existing observatories, including the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor. In the early 1990s, when COPL’s Dr. Ermanno Borra proposed installing a liquid mirror telescope on the Moon, his idea was seen as the stuff of science fiction. But only 15 years later, his proposal has been picked up by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts for financing purposes!

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