From science to business

Start-up Pixel Photonics from Münster
Bright minds use the smallest particle of light

The physicists from Münster are conducting research on the recognition of single photons. Several industries are curious about complex technology. The start-up now needs to master the transition from science to business.

And let there be light – at least a little bit: the start-up Pixel Photonics develops systems that can recognize and count individual photons. The smallest possible light particles play a decisive role in some industries of the future. For many years, scientists have been researching how to detect them reliably and inexpensively. The Münster founding team also worked on this assignment at the Physics Department of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität (WWU). In 2020, scientists decided to turn the research project into a start-up. In addition to physical knowledge, other technological developments such as semiconductors are also important. “We were able to put several thousand detectors on the chip – this is how you can scale the technology,” says Wladick Hartmann, co-founder and head of technology at the start-up.

The main goal: to develop a detector with a relatively small size and relatively cheap to sell. The system from the Münster-based company is now the size of a small refrigerator – and costs several hundred thousand euros each. The first client has already been found, there will be more soon. The founders believe their solution is well prepared for commercial success: “One of the strengths of our technology is that it can cover a wide variety of tasks with just a few adjustments,” says Co-Founder and CEO Nicolai Walter.

Light particles instead of password protection

The startup sees particularly great potential in three areas: First, in encrypted quantum communication. Many researchers have high hopes for quantum computers, which operate quite differently from today’s computers and can process data at a much higher speed. Problem: Passwords or other ciphers are cracked in no time. In the future, individual light particles can be sent as a control signal – detectors such as those from Pixel Photonics determine if a message is coming from a reliable source.

Second, photons can also be used in quantum computers themselves. In such cases, Pixel Photonics detectors would become part of these new supercomputers. “Our vision is that we will be part of any future quantum computer,” says Walter. Third, light particle detectors can also be used in medicine. There, for example, they help doctors determine where the harmful tissue is, down to the level of the cells. “But there is still a long way to go until then,” says Hartmann.

From science to business

The challenge for the startup now is finding the right partners in the right industries to bring their systems to market. This so-called “product fit to the market” is a classic obstacle for the so-called deep-tech start-ups. These are start-ups that often started out as complex research projects at a university – for example in computer science, biochemistry or physics. These start-ups are often not able to monetize their innovations as much as online sales platforms – but they have great potential for Germany as a high-tech location.

In many cases, the initial help is the so-called grant for transfer of Exist research. In this way, the federal government supports the founders in transferring their ideas from science to business. Pixel Photonics technology was also supported in this way. The project was developed in the working groups of WWU professors Wolfram Pernice and Carsten Schuck, the founding team includes Walter and Hartmann, Fabian Beutel, Martin Wolff and Christoph Seidenstücker.

The relationship with science is still close two years after its founding. In the spring, Hartmann received the state award for innovation – in the category of young talent. At the turn of the year, the start-up also received research funding of over EUR 2.6 million together with its home university in Münster and the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. The project concerns high-security encryption methods that travel over greater distances over fiber optic lines.

EUR 1.45 million from investors

The successful application for funding also helped find private start-up financers: “As a result, our technology has been approved to some extent by the state,” says Seidenstücker, “which reduces the risk for investors.” Pixel Photonics has completed a financing round of EUR 1.45 million. The money was flowing from the semi-public High-Tech Gründerfonds (HTGF) based in Bonn. The Quantonation fund from France, which specializes in quantum technology, was also involved. The meeting was also attended by entrepreneur, consultant and photonics specialist Hendrik Sabert.

In addition to further development, the Pixel Photonics team now uses fresh capital for the development of marketing and sales. The team does not want to set up its own production of sensitive chips – founders suspect that it would cost at least 20 million euros. Instead, they initially use the university’s “Münster nanofabrication plant”, which also has clean rooms. The founders have a home advantage here: four of the five founders were involved in the creation of the facilities during their PhD.

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