An ultrafast laser that’s as precise and reliable as a Swiss timepiece

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At the office, Florian Emaury, CEO of Menhir Photonics, presents his ultrafast,

At the office, Florian Emaury, CEO of Menhir Photonics, presents his ultrafast, compact and robust laser system. (Photo: Florian Bachmann/ETH Zurich)

Florian Emaury, CEO and co-founder of Menhir Photonics, has a dream: to shake up the market with ultrafast lasers. The company’s approach is based on reliable, robust, high-precision lasers - and a strong presence both in the markets and on social media.

When people hear the word "laser", their minds may well turn to laser pointers or lightsabres such as those used by Darth Vader and the Jedi Knights in Star Wars. But the laser produced by ETH spin-off Menhir Photonics is not about producing spectacular lighting effects. From the outside, it is nothing more than a nice-looking, small blue box with a silver casing.

This laser apparatus is every bit as robust as it looks: it will continue to generate laser beams even when hit with a hammer - it operates with the precision and reliability of a Swiss timepiece and remains as sturdy as a Gallic standing stone (menhir) in the process.

Precise and reliable, sturdy and robust - for Florian Emaury, CEO of Menhir Photonics and one of the three founders of the company, these are the key characteristics of this laser device: "Even shaking or hitting our lasers has no impact on their performance."

At the forefront of laser technology

Florian Emaury adds that market research has shown that there is a demand for turnkey and compact lasers of this kind in industry - and indeed in diverse fields of application.

In addition to scientific use in research laboratories, these lasers are also suitable for industrial applications in synchronisation electronics, microwave generation and telecommunications, as well as in harsh environments such as those in aviation and space flight, as they can withstand a wide range of pressure conditions and vibrations.

Menhir Photonics’ lasers are not only robust and reliable, but also ultrafast - and produce a beam of very pure light. This all-in-one blue "box" contains what is known as a pulsed laser, which generates a tightly focused, high-intensity laser beam by emitting individual laser pulses in extremely fast succession.

With that in mind, Menhir Photonics relies on ultrashort pulses lasting just a few hundreds of femtoseconds. For comparison, 1 femtosecond is equal to 0.000 000 000 000 001 seconds - a blink of the eye lasts 1 second. The overall effect is that this femtosecond laser generates a highly pure laser light with barely any variation in intensity - "low noise", as physicists say.

From the small system to the big market

Florian has a clear business strategy for Menhir Photonics’ lasers: "Photonics is an enabler technology, and we develop lasers intended to be integrated into complete industrial systems."

In other words, the lasers from Menhir Photonics are not a definitive solution in and of themselves; rather, they are core components in the development of more global systems, such as complex particle accelerators or timing and synchronisation for satellites.

Precisely because they operate very reliably, the Menhir Photonics’ lasers can be used, for example, as reference clocks in accelerator systems. Their stability and high precision (they can be seen as a very precise "photonics metronome"), make them suitable for any applications requiring extreme accuracy, like GPS or telecommunications.

Rather than developing lasers for a long-established market, Menhir Photonics’ laser systems contribute to the development of markets that remain highly fragmented but have high potential. Many companies and products exist alongside one another and there is no dominant player. Those who enter the market at an early stage can help to shape it and support the market expansion while innovating to gain or maintain a competitive advantage.

That is something that Florian Emaury knows from experience - from his previous start-up experiences and from his industrial experience with numerous laser manufacturers worldwide. Today, Menhir Photonics has customers from all over the world and has struck the first deal with China, followed by sales in Germany, the US and, most recently, Switzerland.

A three-person team in the stream of life

Florian Emaury does not work alone, and Menhir Photonics relies on a complete team with extensive industrial expertise: he and his partners, Benjamin Rudin and Roger Valentin, who are also ETH graduates, have 30 years of combined professional experience. Benjamin and Florian have known each other since their time at ETH.

Florian Emaury worked with Ursula Keller, who is a Professor at ETH Zurich and has played a key role in advancing this technology over the last 20 years. It was under Keller that he completed his doctoral thesis on ultrashort pulse lasers four years ago. Benjamin has also obtained his doctorate on ultrafast laser sources under Ursula Keller, and he is an essential part of the team working on laser product development at Menhir Photonics.

As Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Benjamin Rudin is in charge of the design and supervision of the laser products, as well as bringing state-of-the-art innovation to the company. Roger Valentin has a doctorate in electrical engineering from ETH and is an expert in the design and production of analogue and digital electronics for photonic systems. He is in charge of the department of electronics and mechanics at Menhir Photonics.

Florian Emaury himself devotes a good part of his working hours to customer relations and market communication: "As a young company, we need to maintain a strong presence to create awareness." And not only in the real world but also online; for example, he regularly posts news about Menhir Photonics products and trade fair appearances on LinkedIn or Twitter.

He spread word of the "hammer test" on YouTube: "There’s no such thing as communicating too much. Even if you think you’re over-promoting your product, you’re probably only reaching a small part of your potential customers," he says.

Life on social media exists within the "feed" - in a constant stream of images, videos and short pieces of text. It’s in this stream that Florian Emaury wants to maintain the company’s presence and keep a good relationship with customers, while ensuring that the delivered products satisfy customer needs.

Florian Meyer