Bristol innovators pioneer photonics microchip technology to inspire new generation of engineers

Bristol startup Light Trace Photonics is developing photonic microchip technology to help UK companies develop and deliver microchip-enabled innovations.

Photonic technologies generate, detect and manipulate light to power systems such as fibre optic broadband, medical imaging devices and quantum technologies.

The company’s first product is a revolutionary education tool that enables students to get hands-on experience programming photonic microchips, helping to inspire and educate a new generation of engineers.

“At Light Trace, we’re developing microchips, like the ones in your smartphone, except these can route and control light as well as electricity,” says Jake Biele, CEO.

“These photonic microchips enable us to take existing photonic systems that you would usually find in telecommunication devices or in data centres and shrink them down to the chip level, providing superior size, performance, and power considerations.

“The technology has an enormous range of potential applications from breath analysis for detecting diseases, to GPS-free navigation.”

In 2022, Light Trace won an Innovate UK Unlocking Potential Award to help further develop their educational product, the LightPort:Edu, aimed at closing the future skills gap in this exciting field of engineering.

“Photonics is critical to our everyday lives, but most students don’t hear about it until they take a physics degree, as it’s not in the A Level curriculum. The result is that we’re now facing a serious skills shortage.”

“As part of the Unlocking Potential award, we are exploring ways we can get the LightPort:Edu into A Level classrooms to inspire a more diverse pool of students into a photonics career via hands-on experience programming photonics microchips.”

Young Innovator Award

In 2022, Jake won an Innovate UK Young Innovators Award, including a £5,000 grant, a living allowance and one-to-one business coaching from Innovate UK Business Growth, led by Innovation and Growth Specialist, Rob Nicholls.

“The award was an absolute lifesaver, and I think it’s fair to say that although the financial support provided a very useful stepping stone, the business support was 10 times more impactful.”

“I came out of my PhD with a good idea, but no experience in commercialising tech. So having that support from Rob provided a huge confidence boost and saved us from going down a lot of dead ends.”

Business strategy

To help Light Trace articulate its story and vision, Rob provided guidance on developing a compelling value proposition.

“One of the biggest issues we had at the beginning was being too focused on the tech and its features.”

“Rob helped us to communicate with people who knew nothing about the technology by focusing first on the potential impact and size of the opportunity.

“So we went from saying ‘I love this tech, I want to tell you about the tech’ to ‘this is the business model, this is the value proposition, this is who it’s going to affect and this is why it’s important’.

“I think that saved us considerable time in terms of finessing our story and being able to go on and win more resources to build the company.”

Marketing support

Working with Rob, Light Trace next turned its attention to its marketing strategy, focusing on its website and social media sales funnel.

“When we started working with Rob, we just had a landing page. He helped us to develop the page into a full website that reflects the stage we’re at, refine our customer journey and improve our SEO so we could rank higher on Google.”

“Competitor analysis was key to making that a success and overall, it’s really helped with our sales pipeline.”

IP support

Light Trace next applied for an IP Audit grant, delivered in partnership with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), to gain an overview of its existing IP assets and create a strategy for managing and protecting them.

“The IP Audit was super useful. It made us look beyond just patents and gave us a good understanding of risk, the resources we’d need and when would be the optimal time to start protecting our assets.”

Continued work with Innovate UK Business Growth

Since graduating from the Young Innovators Programme, Jake has been working with Innovation and Growth Specialist, Dee Temple-Multon to focus on the next phase of growth.

“Dee’s connected me with finance specialists who’ve helped us to assemble financial projections so we’re ready for investment.

“We’ve also spent time with an internationalisation specialist, who’s helping us to understand regulation outside of the UK and how to penetrate future markets.”

Innovate UK Business Growth will continue to support as this Bristol business moulds the future of photonics, developing both technology and talent in this exciting field.

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