People behind the PICs | Thomas Mérelle

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?

As a holder of both a PhD and an executive MBA, with professional experience in the field of CMOS semiconductors, programming and Artificial Intelligence, Thomas Mérelle is able to approach the integrated photonics industry from a wide angle. He conducted his PhD research in semiconductor physics at the University of Montpellier, simultaneously working at STMicroelectronics. From 2006 onwards, he held various scientific and engineering positions at NXP Semiconductors and Global Foundries, until he became a Technical Consultant at Pi Lightning in 2015. It was during this job that he was first introduced to photonics. After obtaining his MBA during the pandemic, he started as a Product Manager at SMART Photonics. Today, he works as Photonics Platform Manager at III-V Lab, a joint industrial research lab of three major semiconductor research centers: Nokia Bell Labs, Thales and CEA-Leti.

Thomas Mérelle, Photonics Platform Manager at III-V Lab.

The scope of your career spans several industry sectors, particularly those of semiconductors and integrated photonics. How did you experience the transition between these two fields?

“You can think of the photonics industry as an emerging subset of the semiconductor industry. They are very different fields, but I consider them to belong to the same family. Still, it is a challenge to get exposed to a new technology. It was new for me to combine active and passive devices. I had to learn a lot of things along the way, both technical and non-technical, but I liked that experience. Moreover, it is interesting to see the different time spirits. I started the first part of my career in the semiconductor industry in the early 2000s. At that time, the industry was offshoring a lot of its manufacturing from Europe to Asia. Since the pandemic however, people realize we need to reassure manufacturing capabilities in the European high tech sector to reduce our vulnerability to supply chain disruptions. This is a welcome reversal of trends for all of us working in these industries. It forecasts an incredible growth. That is also why it was important for SMART Photonics to hire someone with a background in microelectronics and expertise in manufacturability. Contributing to the growth of the integrated photonics industry by making other people benefit from my previous industrial experiences, is what makes me get out of bed in the morning.”

How would you describe your current role at III-V Lab? Which aspects of it do you find most exciting?

“III-V Lab has twenty years of recognized expertise in the conception and manufacturing of state of the art components. By using all the III-V semiconductor materials, we are able to cover the complete electro-magnetic spectral range. It is exciting to work in a place that benefits from a strong legacy in the field of advanced semiconductor technologies. All III-V Lab personnel are assignees from our respective mother companies: I am myself a Nokia Bell Labs assignee. Many disrupting technical innovations, among which the first transistor and the first laser, were invented at Nokia Bell Labs.

As Photonics Platform Manager, I am in charge of the projects related to indium phosphide MPW activities. You could say I am the interface between the technical team and the outside world. I coordinate the choices we have to make regarding new process solutions, building block developments, customer acquisition strategy, et cetera. A lot of my work is about listening to the market, understanding the needs of our customers and making sure we are ready at the right moment. I get to bring my understanding of the foundry business to III-V Lab. It excites me a lot to improve existing workflows and put new processes in place in order to optimize our MPW offer. Additionally, I find it really interesting to work on a Process Design Kit (PDK); making sure all the building blocks can be properly defined and assembled as a circuit, understanding the technicalities. Contributing to the PDK enrichment with new process solutions and new building blocks will enable III-V lab and our customers to create more complex and more feature-rich PICs. I am even designing PICs myself nowadays!”

You have a PhD as well as an MBA. What
motivated you to move from purely technical positions to broader roles? How do you combine your technical knowledge with your business knowledge in everyday tasks?

“In the first part of my career, when I was working in a purely technical role in classical semiconductors, I put a lot of energy into developing a technology on LiFi. LiFi is a wireless communication technology that uses light to transmit data and position between devices. The technology we were developing had high potential and was deemed very promising. What happened however was that LiFi never got the market traction that was expected. This was frustrating. I learned the hard way that even if you put a lot of effort into pushing a technology that has great performance, nothing will come out of it if the market pull is not there. It made me realize I was missing a piece of the puzzle and I wanted to understand the human science behind all of this. What motivates people to buy a product, what is customer acquisition, why should you talk to as many stakeholders as possible and expand your network, how do you create something that will generate market traction.

When it comes to combining the commercial with the technical, I always say I am an engineer first but I approach things with a helicopter view. I understand how departments with conflicting goals and KPI’s can, and should, work together to deliver real value for a company. At the start of my career, I was purely focused on the technicalities. Now I am more focused on the bigger picture: the supply chain, the relationships with our partners, the new markets we should explore, et cetera. I believe commercial success is much more defined by market pull than it is by technology push.”

In which market sectors do you think PICs have the most potential?

“For the foreseeable future, I expect the telecom and datacom market segments to remain the largest for integrated photonics. Even if these market segments are currently experiencing a market downturn, the mid- and long-term prospects are bright; 5G infrastructures have not been fully installed everywhere, and 6G is coming. I notably believe in coherent communication, which is highly sensitive and very suitable for high volume and long distance communications.

In a more distant future, I believe in another very promising market: neuromorphic PICs. They represent to me an incredible opportunity for integrated photonics. Compared to chips dedicated to Artificial Intelligence computation that are made with classic CMOS technologies, neuromorphic PICs can train and infer neural networks one to two orders of magnitude faster. In the classic microelectronics industry, AI dedicated chips represent a new and fast growing market segment, which is led by NVIDIA. You only have to look at their current market capitalization (1.7 T$!) to be convinced of the potential. Knowing that integrated photonics can do the same but 10 to 100 times faster (or with a 10 to 100 times larger neural network complexity at the same computation speed) means the potential is just incredible! Today, PICs are not ready yet for mass production for this particular sector, but I believe the technology will benefit a lot from breakthroughs in hybrid integration. This will allow us to combine the strengths of indium phosphide for light sources and active building block performance, with the density of building blocks and low loss of other photonic substrates such as silicon or silicon nitride. I believe PIC experts working with different materials should closely collaborate to offer mass manufacturable light source integration with the right added features, at the right optical power and linewidth, for a minimized coupling loss.”

Is there somebody in the
photonics industry that inspires you? And why?

“In general, I am amazed by pioneers. I consider a pioneer to be someone who dares to risk everything because they are so convinced of their innovation. And who manages to make it a success and grow an industry, benefitting not only themselves but all of their co-workers and stakeholders. If I can name a historical figure here, I would name Carl Zeiss. He was the first person to create optical lenses made out of mineral glasses. His work on developing these lenses and finding out how to manufacture them in a reliable way ultimately led to the creation of microscopes. He started with a small workshop in Bavaria and went on to create one of the most valued and well-respected companies in the world. Nowadays, the company Carl Zeiss AG has four business segments: Industrial Quality and Research, Medical Technology, Consumer Markets and Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology. In the latter, they mainly make optical systems for ASML. I find it incredibly inspiring that something so big came out of the ideas and technical skills of one man.”

You have studied and worked in the fields of semiconductors and integrated photonics in several European countries. Do you see differences in the way of working and how challenges are approached? What are your thoughts on the integrated photonics ecosystem we have in Europe?

“I have lived and worked in five different countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Even if there are some differences in terms of working practices related to local cultures, the main thing I experienced is that innovation is happening everywhere in Europe. In my view, as Europeans, we should work together to make sure the photonics industry flourishes on the continent. There are some important emerging technologies, such as AI or Electrical vehicles, where Europe fell behind the United States and China and is trying to catch up. But in photonics, we are really among the technical leaders worldwide.

In my view, we are at the stage where smoother working processes should be put in place between the different partners in the supply chain. When I was working on the JePPIX Pilot Line, I remember everybody agreed we should involve the packaging companies already in the design stage of a PIC project, not just at the end of the process flow. In order to mature, our supply chain should continue working towards technology standardization and optimized workflows. Foundry PDKs should include packaging related norms and supply chain partners should jointly automate their way of working to increase efficiency and reliability. This will move the industry forward.”

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

“I started my career twenty years ago but I joined the integrated photonics industry fairly recently, a bit more than two and a half years ago. As the science is pretty complex and the technology is in constant progress, I would advise new people to be prepared for challenges. Be resilient in your efforts and do not hesitate to ask questions. In my experience, the first year can be challenging as it is mainly about catching up, but once you pass a certain threshold and know how you can contribute, it becomes very enjoyable. As it is a novel industry with great potential, you have the opportunity to make a real impact. The return on investment is high, which is very satisfying and motivating. So yes, please join, it is a great adventure! There will be obstacles along the way, as in any great adventure, but that should never prevent you from being part of a pioneering industry.”

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