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Photonics can help transform our economy

In August, Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter and Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated Rochester as headquarters for a $650 million integrated photonics startup, AIM Photonics. The intent of the institute is to design and build computer chips that use light (photons), rather than electronics (electrons), wherever possible. The technology has broad transformational potential across all industries and positions our state and city as potential big winners in this high-stakes effort, with new companies and new engineering and manufacturing jobs.

The Finger Lakes region also won one of New York’s coveted Upstate Revitalization Initiative awards of $500 million over five years, with optics and photonics a key economic pillar. This separate award holds extraordinary potential for our region, and for New York.

The members of New York Photonics approach this responsibility seriously. A transformational project of the sort that will leverage our technical, educational and intellectual resources takes time to cultivate.


  • I recently returned from the largest photonics conference in the nation, Photonics West, in San Francisco. Total attendance was over 22,000. New York fielded over 70 exhibitors and more than 400 attendees representing a broad range of manufacturing and research capability in a variety of technologies that fit into consumer electronics, automotive, unmanned aerial vehicles, biomedical systems and myriad other systems.
  • The Center for Optics Manufacturing, a public-private partnership in our region from 1990 to 2003, created new technologies for optical fabrication that resulted in at least three new companies and impacted dozens of others, creating no fewer than 750 new jobs. Twelve years later, the center is still paying benefits, attracting the Naval Air SBIR conference twice each year and still helping to attract new research to the region.
  • New York Photonics members employ over 14,000 people with more than $3.5 billion annual output, primarily in manufactured goods. This includes members that work for high-profile companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook, as well as for national laboratories and branches of our armed forces.
  • For more than a decade, New York Photonics and the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster have been engaged in nurturing the optics, photonics and imaging ecosystem, both regionally and across the state. People are beginning to recognize the extraordinary legacy we enjoy in OPI and to work with us in growing it.
  • In our efforts to bring a major conference each year to Rochester, we worked with the International Society for Photonics Engineering and the American Precision Optics Manufacturing Association to create a conference called OptiFab, held every other year at the convention center in Rochester. In October 2015, the conference brought 2,000 attendees from around the world to Rochester, all focused on optical fabrication. The exhibition space and downtown hotels were filled to capacity.
  • This year, the community will once again host Frontiers in Optics, the annual meeting of the Optical Society of America. The society was founded in Rochester and is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. Again, more than 2,000 people will be in Rochester celebrating our excellence in optics photonics and imaging and injecting tourism dollars into the economy.
  • New York Photonics spearheaded an effort that raised $750,000 for the Optical Systems Technology Program at Monroe Community College, the only associate’s degree program of its kind in the nation. MCC’s labs now exceed those in four-year colleges; the program has two excellent professors and enjoys record enrollment. This is key for the hiring pipeline as we grow the industry regionally.
  • Working closely with partners at the University of Rochester, our international societies and our own membership, we lobbied successfully with our congressional delegation for the National Photonics Initiative, ultimately resulting in bringing the headquarters of the national public-private partnership AIM Photonics to New York.
  • We worked with the city of Rochester to achieve the Obama administration’s designation as an Investing in Manufacturing Community Partnership city, a reward for coordination of economic development efforts. Moreover, we worked also with the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council to be certain that OPI was one of the key pillars for our community’s re-emergence under the revitalization initiative.
  • We have a network of first-in-class OPI companies with a demonstrated track record of collaborating, commercializing new technologies and creating well-paying jobs with strong career advancement potential.
  • After more than a decade of work we have achieved recognition for our industry.

Let me draw an analogy between URI investment in our region and financial planning for the future. A wise financial adviser will suggest a diversified portfolio that includes solid investments such as index funds with a demonstrated track record of yearly returns. Then, depending upon the client’s tolerance, the counselor might also recommend riskier investments—even the occasional big bet like AIM Photonics.

In our view, New York Photonics represents a Rochester OPI “index fund” that continually outperforms the market in economic benefits. It is the smart place to start when considering additional investments in our region.

Every member of New York Photonics thanks the supporters of our efforts for the past decade. We look forward to consultations in the conception stages as URI project proposals develop. The optics, photonics and imaging workgroup of the Finger Lakes REDC has specific ideas, expertise and international relationships that can help transform the regional economy. Work with us.

Thomas Battley is executive director of New York Photonics and the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster.

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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