US clusters thrive on regional expertise

From Arizona to New York, and Florida to Colorado, photonics communities continue to grow in influence across the country.

12 March 2019
Marcus Woo
Lidar firm Luminar Technologies recently set up R&D and manufacturing
operations in central Florida.
Lidar firm Luminar Technologies recently set up R&D and manufacturing operations in central Florida. Photo: Luminar Technologies.

In 1992, Business Week magazine bestowed the name "Optics Valley" on Tucson, Arizona, recognizing the area's growing optics industry with a nod to Silicon Valley. And the moniker has stuck, serving as the long-time nickname for the Arizona Optics Industry Association. In 2016, when the organization became part of the Arizona Technology Council, it adopted industry as its official name.

Optics Valley is one of the oldest such groupings scattered across the US. These clusters are regional organizations that aim to promote photonics and foster partnerships between industry, academia, research labs, and other institutions. Members include companies and universities, and dozens of similar efforts can be found in Canada, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. The clusters' functions and goals to promote businesses and innovation are similar, yet they maintain some of their own characteristics representative of their local industries, resources, and environment.

In Tucson, the engine behind Optics Valley is the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, one of the pre-eminent optical science institutions in the world, says Jack Schumann, the cluster's co-chair. As a hub of education and research, the college trains a skilled workforce and helps develop new technology. "We have a lot of inventors," he said. "We foster a lot of startup companies."

Perhaps the most visible part of Arizona's optics industry is astronomy, as the state boasts the most astronomical telescopes in the country. The region is seeing growth in companies developing autonomous vehicles, camera technology, and lasers, Schumann says. Just prior to Photonics West, Optics Valley and the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona hosted an Arizona Photonics Day - actually a two-day event to further strengthen relationships between industry and academia.

Fiber lasers in Florida
Like Optics Valley, the Florida Photonics Cluster is centered around a highly regarded educational institution: CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida (UCF), the largest university in the nation. "We have a very strong educational pipeline that prepares good photonics specialists, and it starts from magnet school programs in high schools," said cluster president Alexei Glebov.

The organization has helped build UCF's Business Incubation Program, a pipeline to turn technology developed at the university into startup companies. One of the program's success stories is OptiGrate, where Glebov is CEO and president, a company that in 2017 was acquired by the fiber laser firm (and major Photonics West exhibitor) IPG Photonics.

When it comes to photonics, the region is booming. "Florida is doing pretty good, that's for sure," Glebov said. What's driving the growth, he thinks, is the constant supply of an educated workforce from UCF, plus state and local government incentives for businesses, relatively inexpensive land, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the warm weather.

The region is now becoming a hub for smart optical sensors, Glebov added. Recently it became home to the "BRIDG" research facility for making and developing such devices. And Luminar Technologies, which builds lidar sensors for self-driving cars, has opened a manufacturing and R&D facility in Orlando.

The defense industry is also flourishing. L3 Technologies and Harris, who have just joined forces through the largest-ever merger in the US defense industry, are headquartered in Melbourne.

New York: nurturing the industry
Also thriving is New York Photonics, whose optics industry even predates the American Civil War - according to Tom Battley, the organization's executive director. He's referring to the time that experts from Europe brought their expertise in glasses and telescopes for the war effort. Since then, institutions like the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, and companies like Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb have helped build a robust community that is now driven by a new generation of startups and companies.

"Everybody takes ownership in nurturing the industry and filling in the gaps," Battley said. "That's what we're really good at. That's why companies like to come here."

The latest highlight is the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics), the public-private partnership that's leading the nation in developing integrated photonics, Battley said. AIM's test, assembly, and packaging (TAP) facility is now ready to start ramping up production, and a long list of customers is already in the pipeline.

Half of New York Photonics' member companies are involved with the defense industry, he said. But plenty of other fields are growing too, among them laser technology and biomedical research. Vuzix and Six15 Technologies are leading the way in augmented and virtual reality. And in more traditional areas, the likes of Optipro, Optimax, and Rochester Precision Optics are still expanding.

To foster entrepreneurship the state hosts Luminate, the largest optics and photonics startup competition in the world. The final round will take place in June at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, with the winner from the latest cohort of short-listed startups set to win $1 million.

Education at all levels is a priority, too, with SPIE's local student chapter providing outreach in middle schools. Over 200 high school students are taking dual credits in optics at the community college, while for 40 years, Rochester's Monroe Community College has been home to the country's only optical systems design program in a two-year college.

"The community college in Rochester is getting calls from other countries asking if they can hire students," Battley said. The program at Monroe is so successful that others are starting to emulate it.

Colorado's shining stars
In Colorado, Research Electro Optics, now a part of Excelitas Technologies, has helped create a new year-long optics certification program at Front Range Community College, as part of the institution's Center for Integrated Manufacturing.

The rest of Colorado is said to be flourishing too. One of the country's biggest aerospace industries, an educated workforce, a relatively low cost of living, and a good quality of life for those who love the outdoors are all attracting business and driving industry growth, said Damon Lenski, a board member of the Colorado Photonics Industry Association (CPIA). "I hear about it again and again - it's lifestyle."

Thanks to the presence of companies like Seagate, the region is a center for data storage, while many telecommunications companies are headquartered in the state. To promote the biotech industry, the organization is working with the state to fund grants, nurture startups, and support internships, while several federal laboratories are located nearby.

Last fall, CPIA selected scientific instrument maker High Precision Devices as Colorado's "photonics company of the year", with other nominees including Cold Quanta, MBio Diagnostics, and past Luminate winner Double Helix Optics.

"These are great examples of what we consider to be the shining stars in the photonics world," Lenski said.

-Marcus Woo is a freelance science journalist based in California. A version of this article appeared in the 2019 Photonics West Show Daily.

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