WRITTEN BY NADYA ANSCOMBE, FREELANCE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY JOURNALIST
PUBLISHED BY NATURE PHOTONICS
From humble beginnings, the Belgian company Xenics has grown to become one of the world's leading suppliers of short-wave infrared cameras outside the US. Nadya Anscombe finds out how the company has survived the economic crisis by changing its business strategy and continually developing its products.
When Bob Grietens set up Xenics in 2000 he knew there was a market for his infrared imaging chip technology. He also knew that his technology would enable applications that no-one had thought of yet. But he could never have predicted that his company would benefit from a swine flu pandemic in 2009. Xenics' infrared cameras are today being used in airports and Government institutes in Asia and the middle East to detect travelers with elevated body temperatures and symptoms of fever.
The camera enables large crowds of people to be monitored without disrupting the flow of pedestrians. It can monitor temperature differences as small as 0.05 C and is totally harmless and non-intrusive.
Grietens, who spun the company out of the Belgian research institute IMEC, says this is just one of many applications that would not have been possible without his company's ability to rapidly adapt to new market requirements. "Our uncooled microbolometer cameras excel by its on-board intelligent image processing which allows you to make faster decisions.
Xenics started out as a manufacturer of imaging chips, originally aimed only at the scientific market. Today, however, the company has changed considerably and now concentrates on selling complete systems and cameras into a variety of markets. "As well as scientific applications, our markets include modules and components, system integration, industrial and security applications," says Grietens. "The security market is relatively new to us and we are seeing considerable growth in this area. The semiconductor industry has also been an important customer for our systems, but growth at the moment is limited by the economic climate."
Like so many high-tech companies, Xenics has felt the effects of the recession and admits that some repeat orders have disappeared. But Grietens believes that this company's strategy of diversification will see it through the tough times. "We went through a downturn in 2002, but back then we were not really selling products yet," says Grietens. "Today, we are involved in so many markets that a slowdown in one market is usually matched by a growth in another, and new applications are emerging all the time."
He admits, though, that this year he is not expecting the 35% - 60% annual growth that his company has been experiencing since its inception. But then a lot has changed since the company started in 2000. "Back then, we were a technology company focused on chip-level technology and selling sensors," says Grietens. "We soon realized, however, that it is was better to make cameras and to profit from high-margin, low-volume markets," says Grietens. As well as making cameras, the company also carries out system integration and custom engineering and Grietens believes that, in the long-term, this will further increase the company’s strength."These are the added-value markets, which are applications-driven, rather than technology-driven," he says. "We have to also aim at markets that are higher in the food chain, such as the security industry."
The company's ability to adapt and change according to demand is one of the reasons it has grown to become the world's largest supplier of short wave infrared cameras outside the US. Being in Europe is also an advantage. "We think we have an advantage over our competitors because we are based in Europe," says Grietens. "Infrared imaging technology was originally developed for military use in and this has resulted in strict export limitations. In Europe there are fewer restrictions for using this technology in industrial and commercial applications and this has enabled us to grow rapidly."
There are also not many infrared camera suppliers that can claim to have their own technology at chip-level and Grietens believes this is one of Xenics unique selling points. Having our own technology at chip level means we own our production process and adapt products easily according to specific customer requirements, making us more flexible than any others. In this field with InGaAs technology we are the sole source provider in Europe.
From humble beginnings, Xenics now employs around 50 people and is certainly on the photonics industry's success stories. But Grietens knows there is still work to be done. "There is always room for improvement," he says. "We are aiming for new products in new applications and want to keep investing in the company in order for it to grow in the future."