Launching a Successful Spin-out Company

Discovering a way to use digital printing technology to produce unique, individualised holograms led to the formation of DIT spin-out company, Optrace, in 2013. The Dublin-based company specialises in the mass production of the world’s first serialised holographic labels, regarded as game changers in the anti-counterfeiting space. These holograms are as unique as fingerprints and offer a powerful tool for organisations trying to tackle counterfeiting.

With its genesis in research that started over two decades ago involving photopolymers which change their properties when exposed to light, the breakthrough came in 2009 with the development of digital printing technology to make optical components. “We started to look for an application and during our research we came across some papers outlining the worldwide problem of counterfeiting. We realised that our printing technology could be used for a holographic solution to this problem,” said Dr. Izabela Naydenova, Principal Investigator at DIT’s Centre for Industrial and Engineering Optics (IEO).

The Optrace team, led by Stephen McDonnell, has developed a novel technology to overcome a number of challenges associated with the successful mass production of fully serialised holograms. The three main challenges were origination, availability of the correct type of photopolymer, and scalability.

The problem of origination centred on the fact that conventional holographic images are replicated from a master with the same image appearing every time. Serialisation is achieved by overprinting or laser etching the holographic image. The holographic images therefore remain identical and are vulnerable to counterfeiting. Optrace used its proprietary technology to solve this problem. By removing the mastering stage and replacing it with a digital printing step, full holographic serialisation is achieved without overprinting or laser etching.

The second challenge was the polymer problem. Most photosensitive materials require some form of chemical processing, which is undesirable from a health, safety and environmental impact perspective. Consequently, a great deal of research effort was directed towards the development of photopolymer recording materials that require no physical or chemical processing.

“The photopolymer must have certain physical and optical properties for it to be suited to serialised hologram manufacture,” said Dr. Naydenova. “It must be sensitised to the laser wavelength of choice, have appropriate printability, very high spatial resolution and long shelf life. Optrace’s patented photopolymer requires no chemical processing and meets all of the physical and optical requirements.”

The process must be scalable for mass production. Led by Optrace’s Chief Technical Officer, Dinesh Vather, the team has made significant progress in mass production of photopolymer layers in the last two years. Optrace’s photopolymer can be coated to micron precision with uniform thickness on plastic layers in a roll-to-roll process at speeds of tens of metres per minute. The material is also stable in storage using a carefully selected release liner to protect it.

With current label production capacities of up to 30,000 serialised holograms per hour, Optrace has overcome the challenges associated with the mass production of volume photopolymer holograms that are holographically serialised.

Its technology provides a key competitive advantage over traditional holograms, as costly holographic mastering is eliminated. Any alphanumeric text, image or logo can be recorded and changes can be made instantaneously in the hologram recording process and in the resulting holograms. “Changes can be scheduled as frequently as required by the client or on demand, thereby reducing potential counterfeiting opportunities,” said Dr. Naydenova.

Optrace has graduated from its incubation space to acquire a Dublin city base and is actively targeting the pharmaceutical, automobile parts and luxury goods markets. Its product range has expanded to include QR (Quick Response) and linear holographic barcodes; transparent holographic labels; tamper-evident labels that are destroyed by attempted removal from the package; and reflection holographic labels with readable data. Planned future developments include holograms that are sensitive to humidity and pressure.

With technology in place that ensures every holographic label can be made as unique as a fingerprint, Optrace, with its origins firmly embedded in DIT, undoubtedly has a bright future.

In 2011 the Optrace team obtained Enterprise Ireland support under its Commercialisation Fund Programme to look into commercialisation of individualised holograms produced by digital printing. Throughout this phase the project team was supported by DIT Hothouse Licensing Executive, Dermot Tierney, in its effort to bring the technology out of the lab and into the marketplace.

The Optrace team of five comprised Dr. Izabela Naydenova, Lecturer at the DIT School of Physics and Principal Investigator; Dr. Suzanne Martin, Manager, IEO Centre; Prof. Vincent Toal, Director, IEO; Dr. Emilia Mihaylova, Postdoctoral Fellow at IEO and Commercialisation Specialist, Amanda Creane.

Dr. Naydenova acknowledged that the team owes a debt of gratitude to DIT Hothouse. “They were instrumental in helping us to outline the project, to attract funding and to push it through licensing and commercialisation phases. They helped us make a strong commercial case stronger, and they interacted with many companies, attended meetings and negotiated on our behalf with regard to licences”.

Optrace was established in June 2013 by its CEO Stephen McDonnell. Importantly, when funding from Enterprise Ireland finished, the Hothouse team identified a key opportunity to foster the growth of the newly formed company through the Venture Lab Programme at the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC). Optrace was chosen as one of five spin-outs to participate in the ninemonth programme.

Guidelines for Launching a Spin-Out Company

Researchers hoping to commercialise their technology via the establishment of a spinout company are advised to consider the following guidelines:

1. Seek the commercial advice of DIT Hothouse from the outset.

2. Select an experienced CEO, ideally someone who has brought a university born technology to the market.

3. Build a strong and reliable research team, with dedication and passion for what they are doing.

4. Work with DIT Hothouse to incorporate the new venture while building trust between the team and the CEO.

5. Work closely with DIT Hothouse to leverage funding for the development of the next generation of technologies and products.