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Not the time to rest on our laurels, or dollars, but to get busy

At one time, Rochester was known as the “Image Capital of the World.” I believe we will soon be known as the “Photonics and Optics Capital of the World.”

Last month’s announcement by Vice President Joe Biden that Rochester is home to the new Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Integrated Photonics is one of the biggest announcements that Rochester has seen in my memory. This designation by the Department of Defense as a national photonics cluster is going to bring us more than $600 million in federal, state and private funding. This is just the beginning of what can happen.

Rochester has a rich history and legacy in photonics, the science of light. The talent that has spawned from Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, the University of Rochester, and RIT means that anyone working in the area of photonics likely has some type of connection back to Rochester. Our region still maintains tremendous talent in photonics in an array of companies that do fantastic work from confidential government contracting to commercial use.

The work coming to Rochester as part of American Integrated Manufacturing Photonics should rival the Silicon Valley as far as the talent and expertise involved. In a very tight competition, our team was second to none led by SUNY Poly President Alain Kaloyeros, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman, Rochester Institute of Technology President Bill Destler and an array of experts. Support from our federal delegation led by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Perinton, and Sen. Charles Schumer was strong, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $250 million state funding commitment clearly helped propel our entry over the top.

So, what does this mean for Rochester? This early in the game, it is difficult to clearly define what the future will look like, but some things are a certainty. SUNY Poly has projected the creation of 5,000 to 7,000 photonics-related jobs over the next five to seven years. That includes research and development, manufacturing, and a host of other ancillary jobs supporting the photonics industry. Aside from those projections, what is most exciting is the potential for other large, high-tech national and international companies to focus on our region as a place to invest and establish a presence. Companies such as Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Facebook—just to name a few—could benefit greatly in the future from the efforts being put forth by the Rochester photonics community. We must also reach out to organizations like SPIE, the international society for photonics and optics based in the San Francisco Bay area, to draw more talent and businesses in the industry to participate in what is happening here.

There are so many applications for this technology of using light and lasers. One example that I learned about recently that would fit in well in the Finger Lakes region is the potential to scan vineyards from the air to determine the perfect time to harvest grapes for different wines. Beyond agriculture, photonics will impact information technology, health care and life sciences, optical sensing, national security and defense, education and research, and much more.

I would equate the photonics investment here with what happened many years ago in Albany at what was then the SUNY College of Nanoscience and Engineering. Now known as SUNY Poly, it is one of the largest economic drivers anywhere in the state. The potential here through the photonics institute is just as great as what we’ve seen happen in Albany with SUNY Poly. We don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver, so the most important thing to us rather than making projections with incomplete data is to prepare for this investment and expand upon it. I believe we can more than quadruple the initial $600 million investment if we engage other companies and other industries, which can be direct or indirect supporters of the photonics cluster. If we work diligently in this area, we will see results sooner rather than later. We cannot take this for granted. The designation as a photonics hub and the initial investment are just a start. It is important that we agree as a team where the headquarters and manufacturing loca
tions will be in order to benefit the entire Rochester and Finger Lakes region. Facilities in the region already are doing work in the area of photonics that will be great assets as we move forward.

Another benefit of this unprecedented investment is the opportunity to prepare our workforce for Rochester’s economy of the future. We do have challenges now, but we are working to mitigate those through great programs such as those at Monroe Community College, U of R, RIT, and our other colleges and universities. It is incumbent that we have a workforce that is prepared, tech-savvy, and able to step into a variety of positions as these jobs open up moving forward. Having that workforce available will help recruit companies around the globe to take a look at Rochester.

This is not something where we stand by and things just happen for us. We have to make it happen. Let’s get busy.

Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact him at rduffy@RBAlliance.com.

8/21/15 (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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