Swave Photonics-founders Theodore Marescaux (CEO) en Dmitri Choutov (COO)
Swave Photonics is a Leuven deep-tech start-up that is working on holograms that will be visually indistinguishable from reality. This new spin-off from imec can build on seven years of R&D at the world-renowned research center. And although the young company has only been around for a few months, it already managed to raise 7 million euros in growth capital last summer. With a strong focus on internationalization, Swave has also opened an American office. Co-founder Theodore Marescaux explains what the further plans are and how high those ambitions actually reach.
When they talk about holograms in Leuven, they don’t mean the gimmicks that you see now and then appearing at festivals or conferences. “The word ‘hologram’ has been heavily misused in recent years”, says Theodore Marescaux. “In many cases it is simply about the technology that was already used at fairgrounds in the 19th century. For example, a few years ago, the deceased rapper Tupac was projected on stage during a performance by Snoop Dogg. You actually just put a television on the floor with a piece of glass above it, which creates a ghostly effect. But this is not at all what we are doing”, explains the co-founder of Swave Photonics.
The Leuven deep-tech start-up is developing a chip that makes new types of holograms possible, and may even replace ordinary screens. “A normal screen works by sending light into your eye,” explains Marescaux. “We are going in a completely different direction: by playing off the interferences between light waves against each other, an image is projected. It is like creating an image on the surface of a lake by bouncing small waves on the water against each other.”
An extremely innovative technology that creates many new possibilities. For example, holograms could solve the limitations of augmented reality and virtual reality. “These types of technologies have a low resolution, and the image does not focus well on the foreground and background. The latter creates a very unnatural effect,” explains Marescaux. “On top of that, a lot of people get sick when they put on VR or AR glasses. A hologram solves all these problems. Our images are always at the right level of focus, and don’t cause nausea.”
However, such holography does not allow an image to appear out of nowhere, as we know from science-fiction films. “That is not technically possible,” says Marescaux. “You cannot project an image into nothingness. You either have to project it into the user’s eyes, as screens do today. Or there must be a medium on which the image can be projected. Compare it to a laser beam, which you will only be able to see when there is smoke.”
VS of China?
The recent seed capital round is striking for a company that has been in existence for less than six months: in the summer of 2022, Swave Photonics just raised seven million euros. Shortly afterwards, too the American Mike Noonen was brought on board as CEO. “A heavyweight in the chip sector that can rely on more than thirty years of experience,” says Marescaux about their latest acquisition.
With the capital raised and under the leadership of the new CEO, Swave Photonics now wants to make its holography chip ready for the market. Although, according to Marescaux, we will have to wait a while for that. A first prototype would not be ready until 2024, and then put it on the market a year later.
Also striking: the growth strategy of Swave Photonics relies heavily on the United States. For example, the Belgian company has already opened an American office, and the new CEO is stationed there. Why that choice? “We have sky-high ambitions”, replies Marescaux. “Both our company’s capital and customers are currently in the US. So it seems to me only logical that we are there from day one.”
Both our company’s capital and customers are currently located in the US. So it seems only logical to me that we are there from day one
But what about that other technology giant China? Because there is also a lot of investment money available there and you will find large tech companies that are potential customers for Swave Photonics. “As a start-up you have to choose one front”, says Marescaux. “Our analysis was that America is a more mature market. We felt more confident to settle there first, especially because we know that market better. But we could indeed have gone for Asia.”
Swave Photonics is a good Belgian example of deep tech, or start-ups that produce very complex technology and have to invest heavily in it. A domain that, according to Marescaux, is only gaining in importance. “Developing such disruptive deep tech is extremely exciting. In the current context, there is also more attention and support for this, which is extremely important.”
Developing such disruptive deep tech is extremely exciting. In the current context, there is also more attention and support for this, which is extremely important
“Europe will certainly reap the benefits of this. We are, of course, in a geopolitically complex niche. Many chips are now produced in Asia, and Europe wants to produce them locally. I applaud these efforts, but at the same time I hope that the geopolitical situation remains stable.”
Marescaux remains vague about the long-term plans for the time being. Does Swave Photonics want to remain an independent player, or will a takeover be considered in a few years’ time? “It is much too early to make any statements about it now,” says the co-founder. “All scenarios are still open.”
“What I personally find much more important is that this technology can make a big impact. She is turning science fiction into reality and is going to change the world in the same way cell phones changed the world back then. Our ambitions are therefore considerable. Whether we will realize them alone or with the help of other companies, it is difficult to say at the moment.”
Our ambitions are considerable. Whether we will realize them alone, or with the help of other companies, is difficult to say at the moment
Meanwhile, a gigantic assignment awaits them: to prepare the technology for the real world. “We certainly have no shortage of challengesn”, laughs Marescaux. “There is this really cool technology, but now we need to get it ready for mass production.”
“In addition, we have the usual challenges that every start-up faces, such as creating growth and establishing a corporate culture. We need to get everyone on the same page. This is a hugely exciting project that can make a huge impact. That is what makes our entrepreneurial course so much fun.”