Entrepreneurial journey of Imran Avci (VU Amsterdam)

It was love at first sight: Imran and photonics. After doing lots of research, participating in the Demonstrator Lab with various projects, experiencing the Amsterdam Science Innovation Awards and receiving the Physics2Market grant, Imran is now the founder of the start-up Rapid Photonics. At IXA, we were curious to find out about her entrepreneurial journey.

You are the owner of Rapid Photonics. Can you tell us a little bit more about your product?

At Rapid Photonics, we make photonic chips. Think of it as the chips in our cellular phones and computers as well. It is very similar to making electronic chips, but we use photons instead of electrons. The benefit of using photonic chips is that the photons are very fast. So we can make really fast circuits using that. Also, they are energy-efficient, which is why energy losses are much lower. And that is why we call it greener. Our chips are to be used for (for example) optical biosensing to detect cancer biomarkers, doing optical imaging, quantum computation or neural network systems on photonic chips. So there are plenty of things to use them for. My name is Imran Avci, and I have been working in the field of integrated optics for more than 20 years; I started in the second year of my bachelor, and since then I was in love with it.

How did you come to start your own business?

I decided to start Rapid Photonics out of the literal need for rapid and fast prototyping of photonic chips. My core research line at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is photonic integrated circuits. However – when it came to the fabrication of them – it is hard to find the right facility, and moreover fabrication itself takes a really long time. In the first years of my time at the VU, it became a big bottleneck for me. I spent my first three years and lots of money on working with several companies; however, none of them worked out well. Since this field of research is my passion, I never thought of giving up and instead of relying on commercial companies and external facilities together with a friend of mine we found a clever solution to this problem.  We combined polymers with high quality optical materials and made our own devices in the basement of the VU Physics Department. Using polymer layers allowed us to eliminate the need for advanced fabrication facilities. We are now fabricating lots of photonic chips using an old lithography machine in the basement of the VU, instead of an advanced cleanroom. The result is amazing, and it became an enabler for my group to test as many new ideas as we want in a week for a very small cost.

Did you always want to become an entrepreneur?

To be honest, we never had the idea of having a company. Our ambition grew after we participated in the 2021 Amsterdam Science and Innovation Awards (AmSIA). We did not win, but after the presentations, investors approached us and told us our idea was very promising. There, it all basically started. We now make photonic chips not only for my research; they are intended for research institutes and companies that want to test their ideas with photonic chips but suffer from the same problems with fabrication that I did.

How did you experience support in growing your company?

After our participation in AmSIA, we were approached by the investors. Then the desire came to valorize our ideas. So we sat together with IXA and made the decision to go to the Dutch chamber of commerce (Kamer van Koophandel) and register as a company. At that time, I was still working on my postdoc, so I had one day a week to work for the company. Later on, we had a physicist on board, as well as two persons from the same investment company.

With the help of IXA, we were able to get their Physics2Market grant, which I was made aware of by Peter Cirkel, business developer at IXA, to who I am still grateful. Then, we were able to buy more and better materials for our photonic chips, and started testing our idea. In a later stage, we needed help for the patent, so I sat down together with Peter Cirkel and a lawyer at IXA. They really helped understand things and in the final stage when we had the arrangement with the investors, they were also there for us, arranging all the legal issues and all the other stuff. So yes, I’m quite grateful.

In which phase of starting your business do you see yourself right now?

Right now, we are a start-up; we are mainly doing research. However, we are also investigating many different things, talking with people and connecting with different companies to find the right materials for us. Also, we are joining conferences and introduced our idea to many people. For example, we are in touch with a company from Eindhoven, a design company, to try to work together.

What would you like to achieve in the coming years?

My ultimate goal is to make our photonic chips available for everyone. So if you have an idea, if you really want to realize it, and then test the idea, you should be able to get our chips within a week. And I want everyone to understand the importance of photonics and photonic chips.

What are your plans now?

In short term, we want to make our fabrication very reliable and repeatable to make sure the quality of our products stays the same and to be able to repeat the process in developing products. Also, we are developing a fabrication technology using direct laser writing, so we can make photonic chips within a couple of hours; that would be a huge improvement. At the same time, we are trying to develop our own design kit, so people can plug this into their own design. We have so many plans.

Do you have some advice for fellow researchers wanting to start their company?

My advice is basically never stop, and never give up on an idea if you really like it!