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Building a jobs machine

While the facility is just in its planning stages, Alexis Vogt already is touting the impact of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics.

Since news broke last summer that the $600 million federal facility would have its headquarters in Rochester, Monroe Community College has received numerous calls from people asking about the optics program there, said Vogt, associate professor and endowed chairwoman of optical systems technology.

“AIM has already been a huge success for MCC,” Vogt said.

Local economic development leaders believe the technology developed at the center will help lead to new business and ultimately more jobs in the area.

The AIM proposal projected the creation of up to 7,000 jobs as a result of the work at the center. The estimate was driven by job creation that resulted from equivalent innovation and economic development investments in Albany in nanotechnology and Buffalo in green energy.

Paul Ballentine, director of the Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences at the University of Rochester, said not only does AIM have the potential to have a positive economic impact on the region, it also can help with the creation of another photonics center that would further establish the area as a leader in the field.

Ballentine is driving an effort to create another institute, with funds from the $500 million Upstate New York Revitalization Initiative grants announced late last year. This proposed center would focus on optics, lasers and imaging initiatives.

“If we do things correctly, we can create 10,000 jobs over the next 10 years, we can incubate, grow, or attract 100 companies, and we can add over $1 billion to the region’s industrial output,” he said of both centers’ potential impact. “This is by no means a stretch of the imagination.”

The center Ballentine is proposing differs from AIM Photonics because it focuses on a broad range of light-based technologies other than integrated photonics, including advanced optics, lasers and imaging-multimedia platforms.

AIM Photonics is restricted to integrated photonics by the Department of Defense, he explained. Also, the second center would be a state institute as opposed to AIM Photonics, which is a federal institute.

Ballentine believes initially AIM’s impact will be relatively small, creating, in his estimates, some 50 jobs at the start.

The key objective of AIM Photonics is to create an ecosystem that resembles the ecosystem for manufacturing integrated electronics today, Ballentine said  

It would involve companies that specialize in specific parts of the ecosystem: creating automated design software, supplying materials, designing circuits, packaging them and manufacturing the equipment that is used to make the integrated photonic devices.

Three of the most important applications of integrated photonics are high-speed data communication devices, which will be used to make data centers more efficient; high-speed radio frequency devices used in telecommunications and military systems; and sensors that rely on light, he said.

Since AIM Photonics was announced, Ballentine has been contacted by the head of the U.S. Department of Commerce in China who offered to help Rochester photonics companies attract foreign investment and export products. He also has been approached by three laser companies about doing something in Rochester: two are foreign firms and one is domestic but out of state.  

“Rochester needs to take its rightful place in the exciting developments ahead,” Ballentine said.

Although Rochester only has a couple of true purely photonics-based firms, it has more than 100 that specialize in the optics-photonics-imaging industry.

The region has to do more to build its photonics industry base and can do so with the companies here, as well as the number of higher education opportunities at colleges, including the UR and Rochester Institute of Technology, Ballentine said.

“With assets like this, the only thing that stands between us and a substantial expansion of the regional economy is our collective will to make it happen,” Ballentine said. “AIM will help us do that, assuming the Rochester photonics cluster, which includes both industry and academia members, has input into what takes place here.”

MCC’s Vogt noted the community college is eager to do its share to help boost the local industry.

Vogt, who has worked at local optics companies for years, started her job at MCC in September and was charged with updating the optics programs.

Among the changes proposed are switching the program’s name to optics and photonics, from optical systems technology, and updating the curriculum to better fit the needs of local optics firms and the AIM facility.

The community college offers both a one-year certificate and two-year associates of science degree program in optics. In that track, students can take a traditional optics path that focuses on grinding and polishing optics, or study electrooptics, which really is photonics.

There are roughly a dozen students who graduate from the programs annually, and Vogt believes that number easily could be increased to 20 students.

Those enrolled in the programs range from students directly out of high school to displaced workers and others who already have jobs in the optics field but are looking to strengthen their skills.

There are already jobs available in the local optics community, she said.

“If AIM creates even more jobs, that’s great,” she said. 

Michael Mandina, president of Ontario, Wayne County-based Optimax Systems Inc., said he believes the AIM center will have a strong, positive impact on the region. He believes Optimax eventually will play a role providing specialty optics for newly developed devices and instruments.

The firm plans to grow its local workforce by some 10 percent in 2016.

And while ample funding will be provided to get the AIM venture off the ground, the challenge is converting that investment into high technology manufacturing jobs, as well as having the skilled workforce to do those jobs, he added.

“Commercialization of advanced photonic devices is a difficult challenge, and that’s why the AIM Photonics funding is so critical,” Mandina said. “Without it, we have no chance. With it, we have the opportunity to set our path forward for the next 100 years.”

4/1/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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