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The Photonics West Perspective

By Dirk Fabian, SPIE

The largest optics and photonics research conference and trade show in the world wrapped up in San Jose two weeks ago on a very positive note, despite headlines of a global economic down-turn and uncertainty in the financial markets.

This was my fourth time organizing events and attending Photonics West. I enjoy this conference a lot because it is a great place to get a feel for the health of the $330 billion global photonics industry and make new connections in the community. It is also the meeting most heavily attended by students and is a focus of our early career professional development program.

UC Davis Chapter Alumni gather for drinks after a day at conferences.

Students often ask how Photonics West compares to Optics + Photonics. The short answer is size; Photonics West is simply immense. With 17,500 people in attendance, Photonics West can be an overwhelming experience. There are over 3000 papers presented at the conference, more than 1000 exhibitors to visit, and various social and Society governance events to attend. Downtown San Jose is entirely taken over by SPIE conference goers, so it is easy to run into colleagues or random interesting people. The week literally flies by.

For a full report on all the events, summaries of the plenary sessions and hot conference presentations, see the comprehensive coverage page.

Job prospects are on the minds of many graduating students attending the conference. This timing is perfect because Photonics West comes at the beginning of the year, corporate budgets are fresh, and many companies come to the conference with hiring on their minds and the ability to follow through on the hire. The numbers from SPIEWorks are encouraging. Currently, 313 jobs are posted on the site, and 20 companies took part in the Career Fair at Photonics West. While the number of companies is down from the peak of the telecom bubble, it has seen steady growth in recent years. Many students have taken charge of their careers by walking the exhibit hall floor with their resume in-hand and this Photonics West was no exception. Talking to company representatives is a quick way to get a feel for the atmosphere of a company, especially if you have researched the company ahead of time and can ask some specific questions. I spoke to a number of students who were successful in getting interviews based on their resumes and conversations they had at exhibitor booths!

The job market for recent graduates in optics and photonics is clearly tied to the overall health of the industry, which has posted continuous growth since 2003. Executives participating in the Industry Forum were cautiously optimistic about continued growth in the market, despite what many are acknowledging as an economic slow-down. Photovoltaics, laser processing, interconnects, and semiconductors were mentioned specifically as strong areas in the photonics industry. Supporting this optimism, venture capital investment in photonics based companies has also shown no signs of decline. Yet, Robert Edmund, CEO of Edmund Optics commented that as the market adjusts, "anything we say today could be wrong in a week." Some indications of the downturn can be seen in the semiconductor book-to-bill ratio which measures orders versus product delivery and payment, running at 0.8 for the entire second half of 2007. These mixed signals have apparently not yet impacted the high technology market.

International Market Forecast
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Venture Capital Investment
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Photonics West is not only about market share and business development. Fellows Lunch speaker Dr. John Shinn, Special Advisor of the non-profit group Engineers Without Borders (EWB), spoke on the success of their programs to bring basic infrastructure to developing communities throughout the world. Their efforts have been successful partially because of a strong student chapter program. I asked Dr. Shinn where he thought technology research in optics and photonics fit into the EWB program. According to him, the answer lies with the people doing the research and their willingness to tackle problems faced by people in the developing world. Several EWB projects involve solar and solid state lighting installations in rural villages with poor access to electricity and other resources. Shinn's hope is that SPIE students will also take up the challenge of working on an EWB team.

Building teams and making connections was a common theme throughout Photonics West. At SPIE, we have been working to add more social events so colleagues can mix and meet both old friends and new contacts in a relaxed atmosphere. While we have always held all-conference receptions, we targeted some new groups this year. On Sunday, Student Services hosted its first ever BiOS Student Lunch to provide networking opportunities for about 90 students involved in biomedical optics. The official launch of the Early Career Professionals program brought 40 recent graduates to a social mixer with established researchers and volunteers on SPIE technical committees. This event was particularly lively as new faculty, postdocs, and researchers shared tips on how to make the conference work for them. A few people even left with job leads from the recruiters who attended this event. Last, but not least, the first students-only social at Photonics West was held at the Smoke Tiki Lounge. There was no smoke (California bars are all smoke free), only driving rain, but 75 students braved the conditions in the name of free food and drinks. Pictures from the event are available in the SPIE Facebook Group. Based on the success of these events, we will be repeating them in 2009!

Of everything, perhaps the biggest news from Photonics West is that 2009 will be its last year in San Jose. SPIE will be moving the conference to the Moscone Center in San Francisco in 2010, where the all the exhibitors and conferences will finally be under one roof. I will be sad to leave San Jose, especially now that I can finally find my way around, but San Francisco will allow us to expand and grow in new ways. Join us next year for a San Jose farewell!