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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Printed Electronics in Europe

I had an interesting speaking opportunity this week at the Printed Electronics Summit in San Jose where I gave an overview of the European landscape for organic and large area printed electronics (with the volcano constricting travel, I got the European slot).

What I knew, but what I was surprised to see so pronounced, was the scale of European excitement and support for printed electronics. The comparison with the US is not complimentary.

Today, Europe enjoys the world’s largest and most well developed collection of companies, research institutions and government programs engaged in printed and organic electronics. The ecosystem is well organized, well connected and well positioned to prosper from current trends or any breakthrough applications that may develop.

First, the R&D infrastructure in Europe is active, comparitively well funded and well established. Three Fraunhofer institutes, The UK’s The Knowledge Network, Belgium’s IMEC, France’s CEA/Liten to name a few all have active research programs in organic and printed. VTT, the Research Centre of Finland is very active in this area. It has a division called Printocent to create business in Printed Intelligence applications with a program budget is in excess of 10MEUR.

InnovationLab is an application-oriented research and transfer platform of business and science in the Rhine-Neckar Metropolitan region of Germany. It was jointly founded by the six globally active companies BASF, Heidelberger (the largest printing press manufacturer), Merck (leader in organic chemicals), Roche Diagnostics, SAP, and the universities of Heidelberg and Mannheim.

There many other R&D institutions and players in printed and large area organic electronics—in Portugal, Poland, Greece, and many other locations. I’m sure there is university research in the US, but not as this scale and not with this level of organization.

Europe’s printed electronics community is also extremely well organized. The Organic Electronics Association (OE-A) is a working group within the German Engineering Federation (VDMA). Members range from R&D institutes, component and material suppliers to producers and end-users. It is currently comprised of about a 120 companies from Europe—with a few from North America, Asia and Australia. They have produced roadmaps and provide industry advocacy and promotion.

The Plastic Electronics Foundation, based in Brussels, is a not-for-profit organization whose main objective is to promote the technology of printable, organic based flexible electronics into marketable applications and products worldwide. They have been key contributors to the development of a Strategic Research Agenda for Europe as well as a key player in EU funding projects.

Concerning current government support and programs, FP7 is the short name for the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. This is the EU's main instrument for funding research in Europe and it will run to 2013. In printed electronics, research funding is concentrated in organic electronics, under the name, The Quadriga Project, though it has about 20 other projects not affiliated with Quadriga. The 4 projects that form Quadriga are OPERA, Polynet, Polymap and Prodi. The main and common objectives of all four collaborative projects are to foster the position of Europe as a leader in research, and to strengthen the position of Europe as a main hub in this area.

And finally, in addition to R&D infrastructure and government support, Europe also understands the power of regional clusters. Regional areas in Oulu, Finland; Basil, Switzerland; Dresden, Germany, Cambridge, UK; and the German states of Hesse and Baden-W├╝rttemberg has funded organizations and activities that actively seek to nurture the development of printed and large area electronics within a close municipal region.

Whether this widespread European network of activities can compensate for the presence of large integrated companies in Asia (Panasonic, LG, etc.)and US (GE) remains to be seen. Also, Europe also does not enjoy the advantages of an active venture capital market like the United States.

But it does look like a rational, purposeful and coordinated policy to position Europe as a leader in an emerging technology industry. In the US, unfortunately there is no rational and coordinated policy to support existing and future high technology industries.

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