People behind the PICs | Sonia Garcia Blanco

People behind the PICs | The Photonic Integrated Circuits (PIC) industry is booming. Companies in the field are growing steadily, start-ups with innovative solutions are popping up regularly, and the search for technical staff seems never-ending. In this interview series, we are curious to get to know the people behind the PICs. Who are the energy forces driving this technological revolution, and what motivates them? What can future photonics engineers expect from a career in this field?

If the sun had not been shining on the day Sonia Garcia Blanco interviewed for a PhD position at the University of Glasgow, things may have turned out very differently. Luckily, it did, and she stayed in Glasgow for four years doing research into the fabrication of PICs for biosensing applications. After her PhD, she worked as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto for two years, before becoming a Researcher at the Institut National d’Optique in Québec City. In 2010, she joined the University of Twente, where she is currently leading the Integrated Optical Systems (IOS) group. Next to her job at the university, Sonia is the CEO of ALUVIA Photonics, a start-up company she co-founded in November 2022.

What made you decide to do a PhD in PICs and pursue a career in this field?

“When you choose to do a PhD, you often don’t really know what you are getting yourself into. But I knew I always liked making things smaller. I studied electrical engineering in Madrid and specialized in microelectronics because I wanted to make chips. When I was looking for PhDs, all the projects that I liked were in the field of making things smaller. The one in Glasgow that was in integrated optics, I pretty much got into by accident. I went to the city without any expectations, and they managed to get sun on the day I had my interview! The people were also very friendly, I just loved it immediately. From there, I continued my journey.” 


Fast forward to the end of 2022. You had been working at the University of Twente for more than ten years and decided to start your own company: ALUVIA Photonics. What did you enjoy most about the process of founding a company? What was the least enjoyable?

“I had been doing research in the group for many years and found that in the beginning, the components on our PICs were very lossy; too much of the data they were generating was not transmitted properly. But at some point, we reached a satisfactory level and it prompted me to think ‘hey, what else can we do with this?’. We can start making PICs on a different material platform, but that feels like a waste. We can start providing PICs for other partners within our projects, but perhaps we are more mature than that. Why not offer it commercially so that a lot more designers can benefit from it? That is why we decided to start ALUVIA.

We are currently selling PICs in Multi-Project Wafer (MPW) runs, talking to potential clients and thinking of different applications. I like these things a lot. Before coming to the University of Twente, I worked in a company for many years. I have always liked finding real-life applications for the research I was carrying out. I do not consider myself a fundamental researcher, because I want to see what the research is useful for. Now, together with the team at ALUVIA, I am turning our research into something real that can benefit society. This is very exciting to me. I compare it to a baby: it is small in the beginning and after a while it starts growing and wailing. At the moment, ALUVIA is a baby that we are trying to feed with the right things to let it grow and prosper. However, in order to achieve this we need funding, which is not always easy to get. For me, this is the most difficult part; I see such potential, I know that this company should grow, but I am not in control of all the steps in the process. At the moment, we are doing a lot of talking and it is going much slower than the pace at which the market is developing. Starting a company definitely requires you to have a lot of patience and not get discouraged easily. But I am very happy with the subsidy we have received so far, things are really starting to take off now.”


What is the vision
of ALUVIA? Where do you see it going in five to ten years?

“My hope is that with ALUVIA, we will make PICs for customers around the globe so they can benefit from the great performance our material offers. I can see ALUVIA growing into a company that provides the world with PICs for many different markets and applications. As the awareness of what PICs can do grows and spreads throughout more market sectors, many new applications will arise that do not exist yet today. That is why we believe in listening to the market and trusting that it will tell us what it needs. We are actively making sure that when this happens, the relevant people will know how to find us. Imagine how amazing it would be if all of these future applications have a little piece of Enschede in them.”

 

You have a full-time job as a Professor and are the CEO of a start-up. How do you find the right balance?

“I have always liked multitasking. I thrive in the mess, in the chaos, in the middle of lots of things happening. Having to keep 200 bullets in the air and juggling everything is something that I have gotten used to. And it’s not just the job and ALUVIA, I also have my family. Everything needs to be organized. At the moment it is definitely a lot. I hope that after a year or so, things will be more settled. But everything I am doing also gives me a lot of energy. That is why I am able to do all of it simultaneously.”

 

You have worked in both industry and academia. How did you experience the transition? And what are the biggest differences and similarities you see between the two?

“When I just transitioned from industry to academia, I really missed the hands-on part. One of the things I like the most about integrated photonics is the cleanroom and everything that is possible there. But in my current job, I am in meetings pretty much the whole day. I might have one hour to spare in my week, and that is not enough to achieve anything in the lab or in the cleanroom. I was more or less forced to let go of the hands-on work and trust my PhD researchers. In the beginning this was quite frustrating, but I have had time to get used to it and I feel more comfortable now. Although I cannot be there physically, I know the right questions to ask to gage how a challenge in the cleanroom can be dealt with.

In terms of differences and similarities, maybe what differs is the taste; in academia you can find a problem, a small thing that you want to investigate, and you generally have the freedom to spend time on it. In industry, things need to be structured into a well-defined, repeatable process because in the end, a certain result needs to be achieved for a customer. If the end goal is to create a device, the process to create it needs to work every time, not just for one device. So it is a more standardized way of working, whereas research is more exploratory. The type of deadlines you are dealing with differs as well. In industry, things just need to work, no matter what. In research, you often cannot tell if something will work or not. That is what you are figuring out with your work. Of course, both have pros and cons and can be either stressful or satisfactory at different times.”


What is something you are working on right now that really excites you?

“Doing the MPW runs with ALUVIA is very exciting. It is a process that is all about creating something tangible: a chip. You can actually see the product that you are making, which is not always the case in research. Even though it is only an MPW, it is something we do together as a team and whenever we have a good result, it gives me a real sense of accomplishment. A rush of energy like ‘wow, yes!’.”

You have worked in this field in several different countries. Do you see differences in the way of working and how challenges are approached?

“Different labs and universities are organized in different ways. This is not necessarily due to them being located in different countries. But every place that I have worked at had a uniqueness to it. In Glasgow, we all worked together in a big group. All the labs were shared between everybody and everybody was allowed to use the equipment. In Toronto, the atmosphere was much more individual: professors had their own lab and PhD researchers could only use the lab of their professor. In Twente, things are more hierarchical. In my opinion, one is not better or worse than the other. Experiencing different work cultures has taught me to be flexible and open-minded.”


What has been challenging in your career and what was the most rewarding?

“The transition from industry back to academia was quite a challenge. When I was applying for grants, reviewers would sometimes not consider me as an academic because I came from industry. That was frustrating. But at the same time, I benefit every day from the broad experience I have. It gives me a unique perspective. And many things are true regardless of the ‘system’ you find yourself in: when you get a good result it is really exciting, both in industry and academia.”


Do you have any tips for people starting out in the field of photonics, or things they should keep in mind?

“It is very important that you are true to yourself. Choose something that makes you happy, otherwise you will not be able to stick to it. Once you know what makes you happy, make conscious choices that move your career forward. For example, if you want to stay in academia, think about what kind of measurements could lead to a publication. And what are the requirements you need to fulfill to be eligible for the position you are aiming for. Be aware of the long-term impact of your choices. Provided of course that these choices make you happy.”


Curious to know which job opportunities the photonic integration community has to offer? Check out our
career page.