Interview with José Capmany Francoy

José Capmany Francoy is a prestigious researcher and leader of the Photonics Research Labs group at iTEAM, who has received numerous awards and distinctions. Among these recognitions are the Rey Jaime I Award for New Technologies, the Leonardo Torres Quevedo National Research Award, and the Physics Prize from the Royal Spanish Society of Physics – BBVA Foundation. Additionally, he was the director of the iTEAM from 2002 to 2016. In April of this year, he received his second ERC Advanced Grant. We discussed this and other milestones in his career in this interview.

What core memories do you remember particularly from your career?

In 2005, we legally established iTEAM, which until then had been part of the department. With this, we obtained space and laboratories to work in.

With all of this, our group has evolved, and we have grown to around 50 people, many of whom have developed their own independent lines of research.

From a research point of view, with the awarding of the first major European projects around 2004, we consolidated infrastructure and equipment. Among them were the first ERC Grants, awarded both to Ivana Gasulla (ERC Consolidator Grant) and me (ERC Advanced Grant). This was an important milestone because they were the first awarded to the UPV (Universitat Politènica de València) personnel, which gave us visibility and allowed us to hire more people and create companies.

In 2011, VLC Photonics was born, also thanks to the impetus of Pascual Muñoz, and in 2020 it was acquired by the HITACHI group. This shows that with technology developed here, interesting deep tech companies can be developed, which you can grow yourself or have a successful exit strategy and have someone interested in purchasing it.

In 2019, we launched iPronics as a result of the work that emerged from the first ERC Advanced Grant. We developed a new concept and technologies, patents… It is a company that is growing, has investors, and employs around 30 people. It is a great satisfaction to create a company that provides work adapted to the level of graduates, deals with interesting topics, and demands doctors.

Finally, it is very difficult to obtain an ERC Advanced Grant, two… it is almost like squaring the circle.

What do you remember about your time as director of iTEAM?

I remember the start-up phase, the initial structure with the departmental groups, establishing a way of operating internally that respected the autonomy of the groups. It was a challenge to move from an environment with separate groups to finally forming an institute. Achieving efficient internal management and protecting the people who were there, obtaining resources and spaces from the university. We managed to position iTEAM first in research indicators for the UPV’s institutes ecosystem.

As someone to look up to in the field of photonics, what advice could you give to upcoming generations?

One piece of advice, which may not be very popular: be patient. It is necessary to invest a lot of time in reading, studying… knowing that you will not reap the benefits at the beginning. I emphasize to doctoral and postdoctoral students that they have to create their own libraries, take advantage of all the opportunities they have to travel, and network. Although it may seem like a drag to have to go abroad, the connections you make at conferences open doors.

Another piece of advice, which I also don’t know if it will be very popular: it is better to have a few high-quality articles or papers that focus on challenging problems. Nowadays, the publishing system is such that you can end up with hundreds of published articles, but my advice is that when you choose the problems, you are doing so as part of a small strategic plan. Ask yourself, why is it good to solve this problem? What do I want to do and where do I want to go? You can publish two papers a year and have them be very good, and that will be enough. Let’s not put pressure on ourselves to publish. The key is to be consistent, one step at a time.

What motivates you to keep doing what you do every day?

I love the technical aspect of what I do, reading, and continuing to discover things… I recognize that I have very little time since the launch of iPronics and I dedicate a lot of effort to managing, although it is an essential part of my job. The possibility of spending an afternoon reading is what I have always liked and will continue to like.

I also really enjoy training and mentoring. Seeing the educational process of a person is very satisfying, seeing them become a doctor or when they stay in postdoctoral studies. I feel that postgraduate education is more personalized.

Why did you study telecommunications engineering and continue with physics?

I am not a vocational, but it was the engineering field that attracted me the most. I have always liked to know what’s inside the black box. Since physics is part and parcel of photonics, I decided to do a degree in it at the age of 43. It is not the same to study it at that age because the level of maturity helps and it is another phase in life. Some people don’t do it, but I felt like doing it at that time and I went for it.

Who do you think has influenced your career personally and professionally?

Personally, I think my grandfather. He was a person very similar to me. He bought me books when I was studying and gave me advice. I have also been very lucky with my mentors, my thesis directors. Other examples are scientists in the field of photonics such as Dietrich Marcuse, David Payne (inventor of the optical amplifier) whom I met at the University of Southampton, or Amnon Yariv of Caltech. They have been an important role model.

Researching is beautiful, it has many rewards, and at the same time, it requires strong personal discipline because it is very mentally demanding. For those who want to do research: do it well, and stay grounded, without neglecting physical and mental health. You can spend hours and hours working, and if something does not work, the level of frustration can be demoralizing. Being a researcher is a very exciting career, but it must be developed with balance. That is the most important thing.