Head of the HiLASE Centre Tomas Mocek gave an interview to the online portal Vedavyzkum.cz. In the interview, you can read about how the HiLASE Centre managed to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, what is behind the Centre’s successes, and how he sees the future of laser technologies.
How was the year 2020 for the HiLASE Centre?
Despite the fact that 2020 was a difficult year for society as a whole, it was paradoxically an excellent year for HiLASE in terms of achieving scientific results. This was true both in terms of the number of articles published and the quality of the journals in which they appeared.
We have also been successful in obtaining patents. And last but not least, 2020 was a major milestone for HiLASE in terms of contract research, as we completed and delivered two customer laser systems. Firstly, the PERLA 100 laser, which was for a customer in the Czech Republic, and then the GOpico, which was for a customer in South Korea. There, due to the pandemic and the inability to travel, the installation was done remotely, but everything was successful and it was a very interesting experience for our team.
So in terms of fulfilling our mission, 2020 was a very successful year. However, it has to be added that this was also due to a certain inertia effect, because all these results, publications, patents and completion of contracts were of course, so to speak, already set in 2019. And their successful completion fell in 2020.
Is there anything you wish had turned out differently?
Much less positive was the immediate effect of the pandemic, which was already observed in March 2020. This resulted in the cancellation of contract research orders already pre-negotiated. At this point, we have seen quite clearly that the industry is very conservative in a crisis. When the spring quarantine took place, we were told by the other side for most of the contracts that we were ready to sign that they had to wait until the economic situation improved.
Fortunately, this rapid cooling was not fatal to the HiLASE Centre’s cashflow. This is because the dominant part of our funding comes from multi-year projects from public funders. Contract research has been partially affected, but it does not yet represent such a large part of the income needed to keep the HiLASE Centre running. So in 2020, we had no problem coping with this. This year, the situation is already starting to improve for contract research, so I am confident that we will be able to cope with that this year as well.
How has your centre dealt with the situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic? In what ways has it affected you the most?
Of the measures taken, it was probably the mass use of the home office. At HiLASE we had a home office policy in place long before the covid crisis, so working from home was not a problem for us. People were already used to it, so it’s just that during the last year most of the team spent significantly longer hours at home than they had in the past. The positive thing about the whole thing is that, for example, in the case of the project management and administrative support team, we proved to be able to operate almost exclusively on a home office basis for a limited period of time. Contracts, purchasing, administration – all of this can be done essentially outside of the HiLASE infrastructure.
Of course, this does not apply to experimenters and laboratory development. An experiment does not build and measure itself. But, again, it turns out that theorists can spend significantly more time on home office and still achieve great scientific results. All they have to do is connect to our server and they can work from anywhere.
Was there anything that was completely new to you in terms of functioning during the pandemic?
What was new for us was setting up new protocols. A kind of Smart Quarantine within HiLASE. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to quickly create a methodology for making sure that any employee who was covid positive or unwell knew exactly what to do, who to inform, how to report contacts of colleagues with whom they were in immediate contact, and so on. Based on this, our safety officer then decides, for example, to temporarily close or disinfect part of the workplace, whether it is an office or a specific laboratory.
When it comes to the style of scientific work that we are used to, that is where the pandemic has had a very negative impact. For one thing, travel was banned for the whole year, which means no attendance or presentations at physical conferences, only virtual ones. No trade fairs, which was a big problem for us specifically, because we show our laser systems, if possible, in natura. We could not travel to foreign partner sites, nor could we receive guests or interns.
Since you mentioned foreign countries, has the interest of foreign scientists declined during the pandemic?
The number of new hires has dropped significantly. Interestingly, in the case of the Czechs it was exactly the opposite. So, foreigners did not apply to us because of closed borders and health concerns, but as the Czech Republic was hit by the economic downturn, we had an unprecedented number of very good Czech candidates applying for many of the positions we advertised, so there were plenty to choose from.
We were also affected by the limitation of visits by external users of our research infrastructure. In a few cases, we tried so-called remote access, which means that an external user gained access and beamtime, but did not physically arrive. The HiLASE team “worked” the experiment for them, but the external user, for example from the USA, was present online during the implementation and the actual measurement. Thus, it turned out that remote access to the infrastructure is possible.
The HiLASE Centre develops laser technologies primarily for industrial applications. What is the interest in these technologies in the application sphere at home and abroad?
We are currently seeing a revival and the interest in our services and lasers is increasing again. This is, among other things, thanks to a targeted and sophisticated online campaign in the second half of 2020, when our PR and marketing team invested a lot of time in new tools via social media and networking. We held a number of webinars, special workshops with target groups from selected territories around the world, and always tried to tailor our presentations. And I dare say we are now beginning to reap the rewards of this work, as our efforts translate into concrete joint project plans or contract research orders.
Where do you see the future of the industry as a whole?
We will, of course, continue to do what we can and do now, but in the long term, there will be an increasing emphasis on the digitalisation of all processes. Additive technologies in combination with our lasers will certainly grow in importance. And in the case of laser sources, there will be much more involvement of artificial intelligence and machine learning elements. In the future, we imagine that the custom laser that we build and deliver to the customer will be essentially maintenance-free and diagnostics can be performed remotely in the event of a problem. A visit by a technician will be rather exceptional. HiLASE also has the ambition to develop laser technologies that will be qualified for space applications. We see huge potential there in the long term.
In recent years, the laser science centres ELI and HiLASE have established themselves in Dolni Brezany. Around them, other projects have started to emerge – such as the current innovation hub Brain 4 Industry. What is the position of Czech laser research today in international terms?
Today, after ten years of building the HiLASE Centre and ELI Beamlines, we can proudly say that our Brezany lasers are at the absolute top of the world. Such a concentration of lasers with top parameters that we have is not available anywhere else. The Czech Republic can rightly be proud that our laser research is now truly at an excellent level. We are highly visible and respected by the international scientific community. Dolni Brezany is becoming the Mecca of laser research and development.
Why do you think that is?
What has worked well for HiLASE is our “everything under one roof” concept. This means that compared to other laser centres around the world, at HiLASE we have both a very strong in-house development of laser systems, and related technologies and application stations where our lasers are used. In addition, we also have a theoretical predictive modelling group. Together this forms an ecosystem where there is a positive feedback loop in which all these elements influence and reinforce each other.
Many foreign scientists work in Dolní Břežany today, and some technology companies have moved their headquarters here. Cooperation seems to be developing successfully. But why Dolni Brezany? Are they special or was it more of a coincidence?
Both is true. Something was a coincidence, for example, the fact that the enlightened mayor of Dolni Brezany is the nuclear physicist Mr. Veslav Michalik, who coincidentally always wished that Dolni Brezany would be transformed into a kind of Garching near Munich, with companies offering products and services with high added value and top research institutions, not assembly plants or warehouses. The fact that our laser technology does not pollute the environment in any way and the presence of scientists contributes to the local strengthening of the knowledge economy, for example through cooperation with the local primary school in special teaching of technical subjects, was also of great importance.
However, it was not a coincidence that Dolni Brezany was chosen, as a number of technical conditions had to be met in order to locate HiLASE and ELI Beamlines, such as the stability of the subsoil. Both laser centres had to be located where the subsoil is highly stable due to vibrations. And Dolni Brezany meets this perfectly because it sits on a rock.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being based outside the capital city of Prague?
I only see the advantages of HiLASE being located outside the capital city of Prague. The main advantage I see, as a native Prague resident, is the peace of mind for research. Being somewhere in the centre of a big city is not very convenient – it is too distracting. The transport links could be better, but when the metro D to Pisnice is completed, then it will be very convenient. From our point of view, Dolni Brezany as a municipality has an ideal position and at the same time very high quality amenities, infrastructure and services, which are sufficient for colleagues to do some shopping or errands during their lunch break. And last but not least, there is a healthy environment and safety. We are “in the countryside” and very close to Prague. This only confirms that the original visionary intention of the HiLASE and ELI Beamlines projects from 2009 was correct.
Moreover, I think that we are not discovering America, because if we look around the world, virtually all the major research centres are concentrated in clusters on the outskirts of large agglomerations (Silicon Valley, Garching, Saclay, Daejeon, Sendai).
In your opinion, is it possible to build a similarly successful ecosystem elsewhere in the Czech Republic today?
I think it is possible, but the question is whether it is sensible and desirable to build more such greenfield areas in a small country like the Czech Republic. By the way, Brno and its surroundings also work very well, with the South Moravian Innovation Centre, a large number of hi-tech companies, several research institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and two universities.
Your centre is also very active in the field of popularisation of science. You organize events for high school students, you run a popularization website, and last year you celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first laser. Do you see a growing public interest in scientific topics?
Yes, we have long observed an increase in public interest in science, research and especially in the application of scientific results to the real world. In short, people are increasingly interested in what it is good for, how it can (even indirectly) improve the quality of life and prosperity of the country. When we were still able to organise open days, all the places were always booked very quickly and we had a lot of interested people on waiting lists. By the way, interest is growing in all age groups.
How do you assess the current state of science policy? Are there some things that you would welcome as a research centre within an institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic?
I do not feel qualified to comment on the science policy of the Czech government, so I will be more general. I think that as a small country with a limited budget we cannot do everything. That is why I think it is important to put more emphasis on setting national priorities for science and research. And this should happen with careful consideration of what resources have been invested here and with what results. I would consider it very wrong not to make full use of the potential of the newly built research centres from the RDI and R&D operational programmes. This would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Secondly, I strongly support an increase in the institutional component of funding for science and research. The current system, which is based predominantly on earmarked funds (projects), is not stable in the long term. And I say this in the full knowledge that at HiLASE we are very successful in obtaining earmarked support. However, every project will come to an end one day and it is desirable for the long-term sustainability of any research institution that the funding system is tuned to be stable. People then feel more secure and produce better work results.
A major concern for researchers and R&D projects is their increasing administration. This is being intensively discussed, and a working group on the de-bureaucratisation of science has even been set up. Do you see any positive developments?
I definitely see a shift for the better. After ten years of being involved in the implementation of large projects, mainly funded by the Ministry of Education, we are experiencing a much greater understanding of government officials than in the beginning. Today, most of the officials we work with understand what we do and why we do it, and we have a professional and fair relationship. Of course I support the reduction of the administrative burden, but let’s be realistic and say frankly that in the end, we will have no choice but to adapt to the set conditions anyway… A direct consequence of the current situation is that we have a fairly strong project management group at HiLASE, which allows our scientists to do more research and not have to deal with the administration.
Do you still have time for scientific work in your position as head of the centre?
I have been doing science continuously, only my role has changed. My role is primarily to define, professionally guarantee and maintain the strategic direction of all our research and development activities and to create the appropriate conditions for their implementation by the HiLASE scientific team. Sort of like a conductor of an orchestra who also does not play any instrument himself.
So lately I am hardly at all concerned with the question of HOW to solve a particular problem in the lab – that’s a job for soldiers in the field. Instead, I deal very intensely with the question of WHY we do it. I need to ensure that our research and all R&D activities are meaningful and that they are consistent with our mission of “Superlasers for the Real World”. While I don’t participate in lab experiments, I do try to attend brainstorming and evaluation meetings if it is, of course, professionally relevant to me. And most of the scientific papers from HiLASE pass through my hands.
Thank you for the interview!
For the Vedavyzkum.cz editorial team, Barbara Kytkova asked the questions.