“In exploring this area, we noticed that there is specific know-how in Italy on this subject, especially in telecommunications.”

Conversation with Cristina Odasso
LIFFT Head of Business Analysis

What is meant by Photonics?

Photonics is the technological area that uses photons, and thus light, for various applications, such as data transport. New perspectives for this sector come from the possibility of miniaturizing the devices used in different applications. This makes it possible to place the devices inside a chip with the other electronic components and in practice implement a ‘species leap’: photonics goes from discrete to integrated. ”

What is the potential of integrated photonics?

“This is a technology that allows new solutions to be developed in many areas, multiplying performance and application opportunities thanks to its small size. For example, SpectoPhotonics, LIFTT’s first investment in this field, miniaturised a spectroscopy system that was currently very bulky and complex to use, and brought it down to the size of a small chip. “

Has LIFTT identified an added value in this technology?

“Certainly. All the application potential that integrated photonics is offering on the market is of great interest to LIFTT because it can have a significant business impact: these are very deep tech projects that are complex to develop and therefore require the kind of all-round support that is intrinsic to LIFTT’s modus operandi. In addition, there are few companies currently producing this type of integrated chip, and it is consequently a new application area that is strongly under development and ‘capital intensive’. In exploring this sector, we also noted that there is specific know-how in Italy on this subject, especially in the area of telecommunications. This know-how stems from the experience of large companies that have worked on this issue in the past, such as Pirelli’s Photonics Unit, which was later sold to Cisco. These past skills have remained in the area and have given rise independently to various innovative projects that we have had the opportunity to evaluate. Of these to date, we have identified and invested in three projects that have now entered the portfolio.”very deep tech projects that are complex to develop and therefore require the kind of all-round support that is intrinsic to LIFTT’s modus operandi.

Is there an area where these skills are most concentrated?

“Yes, it is Milan, where there are some of the most interesting projects in this field. In the Milan area, it is not difficult to foresee the development of a photonics district capable of bringing together 7 or 8 start-ups capable of coming together to create critical mass and give life to an Italian photonics supply chain. Two of these start-ups are now in our portfolio. “

Is there an Italian photonics ‘deus ex machina’?

“Yes, and it is undoubtedly Giorgio Grasso, who is currently mentoring some of the photonics projects coming out of the Politecnico di Milano and also an investor in some of them. He is a leader who has brought the excellence of the Pirelli Photonics Unit to the world, enhancing it to the point of its acquisition by Cisco. From an application and industrial perspective, he is one of the best known and most experienced people on the Italian scene. At LIFTT we met him for one of the projects we were analysing. During a conference call we had with him as a leading figure in the industry, he informed us about the other projects he was directly involved in, which are the ones we have been working on: CareGlance and Subphoton. “

At a time when, for entirely other reasons, there is much talk of gas pipelines and pipelines crossing the globe, the peculiarities of Subphoton are striking.

“It is certainly a fascinating project: precisely what is happening in other areas has highlighted the importance of vital infrastructures that are little talked about, partly because they are largely submerged in the oceans or underground. And yet, they represent the backbone of the entire global economy, both in terms of energy and communications. In communications, in particular, the advent of the giants of the digital economy, the hyperscalers, has exponentially increased the need for capacity and increased performance of submarine cables to transport data. And this is exactly one of the strengths of Subphoton, which has specific experience and strong ties to the industrial world. Giorgio Grasso is a partner and has an operational role as the project’s chief technology officer, while the team is made up of people who have worked in this field for many years, who are well known and have relational possibilities that have brought them to the table of the world’s top hyperscalers. They also operate in a market where massive investments have already been planned for the coming years and where plans are already in place to extend new cables. Indeed, data traffic is exploding and there will be an increasing need for fast connections: their technology is superior to any commercial standard currently in operation. Existing players are very few and all large compared to the small size and flexibility of Subphoton, which could therefore become a real technological game changer. “Subphoton can develop a completely innovative technology that would at least triple the capacity at a lower price than current connections.

So what do you think is Subphoton’s real strength?

“Subphoton’s payoff is innovation with experience. The team, led by Giorgio Grasso, is made up of four people who, together, have more than 100 years of experience in this field and know all the problems of this sector while maintaining a strong innovative spirit. Normally start-ups are created by people who have no experience and this is also one of the reasons why they can unfortunately fail. The Subphton team, on the other hand, knows the industry very well while remaining open to innovation, and this is also an asset towards customers in terms of credibility. The cables, in fact, must remain underwater for at least 15 years because repairing them means taking them by ship up to 6000 meters in the Atlantic and 8000 in the Pacific: we are talking about 15 days, if the sea is calm, and about one million euros in costs. So, innovation is fine, but the guarantee of operation and reliability is also strategic.”

 Often when talking about these infrastructures, the subject of geopolitics comes up again and again.

“Yes, it is an unavoidable issue that is becoming even more interesting because in the new ‘cold war’ we are going through, one of the issues being discussed is the possibility of interrupting Internet transmissions by cutting cables, so there is a lot of interest in this area. Take TIM, for example, which has been discussing possible acquisitions for years: the company has an important submarine network in the Mediterranean with hubs in Palermo and Trapani, which is believed of strategic interest, which is why they do not want to sell it to foreign companies.  The Internet, after all, is based on this: the moment you ask a question, it goes around the world and the answer arrives thanks to these submarine cables. Subphoton can develop a completely innovative technology that would at least triple the capacity at a lower price than current connections, and this has attracted the attention of two hyperscalers. Each hyperscaler, in fact, has its own network that connects the various servers scattered around the world. Added to the geopolitical problems are the climatic requirements. The strange thing is that the servers are located in the coldest places on the planet, and we are talking about thousands of servers. This is because heat is the problem and even now the cost of air conditioning is a problem, which is why they are in the north of Finland and the south of Argentina, i.e. all the coldest places on the planet, plus they are on the sea to be connected to the rest of the servers.”