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TOPTICA brings its ‘cool factor’ optonics operations to new space in Pittsford

The TOPTICA team poses for a group photo outside their new location near Powder Mills Park in Pittsford.
The TOPTICA team poses for a group photo outside their new location near Powder Mills Park in Pittsford. (Photo provided)

TOPTICA Photonics Inc. is laser-focused on growth as the firm readies to move into larger space and add to its local workforce.

Mark Tolbert, president of the domestic arm of German-based TOPTICA Photonics AG, said the business will move out of its location in Farmington, Ontario County this month – where it has been since 2008 – into a new space in Pittsford near Powder Mills Park.

TOPTICA is a manufacturer of lasers for quantum technologies, biophotonics and material inspection. The business employs some 450 people worldwide and its products are used in more than 80 countries.

Locally, TOPTICA employs some 40 local workers and Tolbert expects that number to increase to around 70 in the next few years as demand for its products continues to grow.

Mark Tolbert of TOPTICA

“There’s lots of momentum now,” he said.

There are currently about a dozen job openings.

The laser manufacturer and distributor is hiring across the board, Tolbert said, noting that there are job openings in science and research, manufacturing and sales.

Tolbert noted that the business has expanded most of its facilities around the globe.

The new space the firm is leasing in Monroe County is more than double the size of its current facility and nearly triples its manufacturing and research and development space, he noted.

TOPTICA will occupy about 70 percent of the 40,000-square-foot building. It will be housed in the first and third floors of the building, in Class A office space that the firm reconfigured for its needs.

The firm has experienced annual double-digit growth, on average, for well over a decade.

Last year was no exception, with TOPTICA experiencing year-over-year growth of 50 percent, Tolbert said.

Increased interest and opportunity in the quantum photonics market due to a national push for the sector helped drive that growth, he said.

That push came from the National Quantum Initiative Act, which was signed into law at the end of 2018 and provides for the continued leadership of the United States in quantum information science and its technology applications.

The act also calls for a coordinated federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security of the United States.

Quantum photonics is not new to TOPTICA, which manufactured its first laser for the sector in the late 1990s, and now makes up over half of its business, Tolbert explained.

The increased interest in the field, however, means more work not only from government research and development labs and universities, but from industry, as well.

In addition to quantum photonics, the firm is seeing growth in the biophotonics sector, as well as in the semiconductor market.

In addition, TOPTICA recently underwent a rebranding, which included a new, more modern logo that better illustrates the work of the company.

Tolbert, a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester, said the firm has what he calls a “cool factor.”

That is because many of its employees and customers are highly educated and respected in the field and include several Noble laureates. They also develop really cool products.

“We enable so much technology that has a real impact on the world,” he said.

Its Guide Star Laser, for example, gives astronomers a tool for deep exploration of space and time. As part of an optics system at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, it can counteract the turbulence of Earth’s atmosphere and image objects from the distant universe, he explained.

There are plans to install more than 30 ground-based telescopes with such lasers around the world in the next decade, which could help answer some of the universe’s most pressing questions.

“In our lifetime, we might be able to answer the question ‘Is there life in our closest galaxies,” Tolbert said. “How cool is that?”

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Lasers in Rochester may fuel the world, reach for the universe

It’s hard to imagine that when lasers were first invented there was a bit of a “so what?” reaction.

In 1960, light was the main application people could envision from lasers and the question was why did we need a new source of light?

But today, laser research in Rochester is helping to determine where in the universe there might be life.

Michael Campbell, director of the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, explains that much of the research done at the lab focuses on what happens to matter under extreme conditions.

“Most of the universe is in extreme conditions,” he said.  By firing the laser at molecules in an attempt to create fusion in a lab setting, scientists begin to understand more about what’s happening to molecules elsewhere in the universe. And depending on which molecules and how they interact, they could be the ones to support life.

All this comes from the ongoing main mission at LLE, which is to harness fusion to create a clean source of energy. Scientists including Campbell are reluctant to make predictions about when fusion will finally be reached in a controllable way to produce commercial energy. They don’t want to fall into the trap that “cold fusion,” a different technology, fell into when it failed to materialize as promised.

Nevertheless, Campbell predicted fusion will be reached in about a decade.

“We will demonstrate that we can light the fire,” Campbell said, which is just the beginning.

Ignition at LLE will be a breakthrough on the order of human flight – the one the Wright brothers succeeded in at Kitty Hawk in 1903, Campbell said.  It took another dozen years or so for some militaries in Europe to adopt flight for use in World War I. Then another 20 years passed before planes were used more extensively to fight in World War II.  Finally, another 15 years went by before commercial travel by air became routine.

“Fusion is really hard, but in the end, it will power the planet,” Campbell said. “The energy crisis goes away.” And it will power the planet as long as people exist, he added. His confidence is rooted in the fact that fusion is nature’s way of making energy, he said, (i.e., the sun). But it’s hard for us to replicate nature. “Nothing that impactful is easy.”

About 60 percent of research at LLE is actually done by visiting scientists who bring their laser experiments to Rochester. They hail from the federal government, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and other centers for scientific advancement. What they discover sometimes is a byproduct of what they were looking for.

“We do science, but in the process of doing science, we find technology,” Campbell said.  For instance, developing smaller and smaller wavelengths for lasers has been useful in making smaller and smaller computer circuitry. As smaller integrated computer circuits became available, the capacity of the computers increased, while their size decreased. The fastest computers in 1985, Campbell noted, had a fraction of the capacity contained in the smartphones many of us carry in our pockets.

“You start out doing science, but people find ways to use things that you’d never imagine,” he said.

LLE, with an annual budget of $80 million, employs 350 people and keeps 140 graduate students busy too. About one third of those graduate students go on to jobs in the industry, another third end up working at laser research centers such as the national laboratories, and one third go into academia, Campbell said.

Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics for work she did as a graduate student at the University of Rochester. (Photo by Peter Lee, Waterloo Region Record)
Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics for work she did as a graduate student at the University of Rochester. (Photo by Peter Lee, Waterloo Region Record)

One of those students was Donna Strickland, who is now a professor at the University at Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. As a graduate student at UR in the late 1980s, Strickland and her adviser, Gérard Mourou, were using the same laser technology that’s been used to operate on nearsighted eyes and create super-strong Gorilla glass. They developed a way to amplify the strength of laser impulses in a way that allowed the development of table-top lasers. Strickland and Mourou shared in a Nobel Prize in Physics a few months ago based on this work that she featured in her graduate thesis.

“The Nobel gives us a reputation for quality,” Campbell said. More work at LLE, attracted by the attention to its former student and former professor winning the prize, will mean more work generally in Rochester. Several local companies, including Sydor Technologies and Optimax Systems Inc., may benefit as a result.

Sydor manufactures products that are necessary for firing and assessing the laser at the lab and has gone on to make such products for places like the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and similar facilities in the United Kingdom and France.

“We transfer technology from the LLE and commercialize it into products that can be sold to customers around the world,” said Michael Pavia, president and CEO at Sydor.

Not all laser research in Rochester happens at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Last week, a joint project of scientists at UR and Rochester Institute of Technology won attention from the publication Physics World.  They’re working on a phonon laser, which amplifies sound instead of light and have developed a technique to increase and focus oscillation of suspended nanoparticles.

According to lead scientist Nick Vamivakas at UR, the work could advance precision measuring, which is key in the use and manufacture of optics. By the way, Vamivakas’ team is building on the work of American physicist Arthur Ashkin, who was the third person to share the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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