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The photonics promise

The decision to base the new institute for integrated photonics here is a very big deal for Rochester.

Will it be the game changer that a parade of area officials have promised? That remains to be seen. But even discounting the hyperbole that typically accompanies announcements such as the one delivered Monday by Vice President Joe Biden, this clearly is a significant milestone in the effort to revitalize the regional economy.

The new American Institute for Manufacturing Photonics has commitments totaling more than $600 million: $110 million from Washington, $250 million from Albany and another $250 million or so from industry and other partners over the next five years. Of this total, more than $130 million will be coming here.

These dollars should translate into a sizable economic development boost, with existing companies expanding and others being drawn to the area. If estimates are accurate, this will mean thousands of new jobs.

Two things are particularly worthy of note in regards to this week’s announcement. First, it illustrates the importance of working collaboratively. Led by the Research Foundation of the State University of New York, the winning team in the Defense Department competition had 75 key partners and nearly 50 additional consortium members. Also crucial were the efforts of public officials—Rep. Louise Slaughter, the governor and many others.

Second, this initiative draws on the region’s deep roots in photonics, optics and imaging. The work of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and others has shown how industry clusters provide a strong competitive advantage. All the better if you can build a geographic concentration focused on what could be a transformative technology over the next half-century.

Even the best strategies require skilled execution, of course. As the lead organizations, the University of Rochester and SUNY Polytechnic Institute will be most responsible to ensure that happens.

This is just the beginning; some of the toughest work lies ahead. Rarely, though, do starts come with such promise.

7/31/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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