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Rochester builds on its proud history in optics

23 Apr 2007

OLE’s regional focus series turns its attention to Rochester, US, home to big names such as Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and Xerox. James Tyrrell talks with Tom Battley, executive director of the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster, and Wayne Knox, head of The Institute of Optics, to find out how Rochester’s rich history is fuelling a new wave of smaller, more agile firms.

Rochester, US, boasts a long history in optics, but that alone is no defence against today's changing economic landscape. One way of staying on top is to pool your expertise and form a cluster. "In 1998, a few of Rochester's more forward-thinking entrepreneurial types got together and spawned the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster," Tom Battley, the cluster's executive director told OLE. "At the time, I was the economic development director for the county and we had looked at clusters as a kind of industry analysis tool to decide where to make investments and create new programs."

As Battley explains, the benefits of networking and sharing information can be very effective. Smaller firms can group together and buy materials in bulk as well as pursuing business as a supply chain collective. The concept was soon snapped up by the local optics community and the regional photonics cluster now boasts around 60 leading optics, imaging and photonics companies. It is the largest chapter in a state-wide organization dubbed New York Photonics. Well-known names include Melles Griot and Corning, as well as up-and-coming firms such as miniature motor developer New Scale and QED Technologies, an expert in magnetorheological polishing.

Supplying talent and ideas into the mix is The Institute of Optics, a multimillion dollar research engine based at The University of Rochester. Since its creation, The Institute of Optics has granted more than 2400 degrees in the field of optics – approximately half of all the degrees awarded in optics in the United States.

The early years
"Following shortages brought on by World War I, it was obvious to key figures like George Eastman and Henry Bausch that Rochester should have a home grown supply of optical engineers," Wayne Knox, director of The Institute of Optics, told OLE. "Discussions began around 1915 and led to the creation of The Institute of Optics in September 1929."

The timing was critical to securing the corporate funds of Eastman Kodak and Bausch and Lomb as just one month later the US stock market crashed. "With George Eastman's gift of $50 m in the late 1920s the university was able to expand and build the River Campus and really become what it is today," said Knox. "To put the donation in perspective, $50 m back then is equivalent to somebody walking up to the university today and handing over $1 bn [€0.75 bn]."

Knox recalls a chance meeting a few years ago with Arthur Ingalls, who received his degree in 1932 and was The Institute of Optics' first ever graduate. "Ingalls graduated right at the bottom of the great depression and was forced to work in his father's hardware store," said Knox. "Finally about nine months later, Corning got in contact and hired him to design optical colour glass filters for railroad signals."

Ingalls' struggle to find work appears to be a far cry from the opportunities open to today's optics graduates. "Right now there are probably more than 100 open positions at companies that are members of the cluster," commented Battley. "Basically, anyone with an advanced degree in optics or photonics can work anywhere they want." Like many others in the field, Battley fears a shortage of qualified workers and believes that photonics needs to do more in terms of public relations to attract students into the profession.

First in the world
Rochester has certainly captured the media's imagination in the past. In 2003, Lucas Novotny and his colleagues from The Institute of Optics' nano-optics group hit the headlines by performing the highest resolution optical measurement ever made. The team developed a near-field Raman microscopy technique that can resolve features about 20 nm across and earned itself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

More breakthroughs can be found at the University of Rochester's Center for Visual Science, which was founded in 1963 and today consists of more than 25 research laboratories. The centre brings together faculty from the departments of biomedical engineering, brain and cognitive studies, neurobiology and anatomy, neurology, ophthalmology, brain imaging and of course optics.

"David Williams' team was the first in the world to directly measure the trichromatic cone mosaic on the retina of a living human eye," explained Knox. "They were able to zero in on the little red, green and blue photoreceptors and identify what colour they were with wavelength resolution." The group also discovered a new form of colour blindness and transferred key technology to Bausch and Lomb.

Success stories here include an enhanced version of excimer surgery for reshaping the cornea. According to Knox, the new system can compensate for higher order aberrations up to fifth- or sixth-order Zernike polynomials, which allows improved vision correction.

Other offshoots from The Institute of Optics include the Center for Optics Manufacturing, the Center for Electronic Imaging Systems and the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE).

The LLE was established in 1970 as a centre to study the interaction of intense radiation with matter. It is home to Omega – a $61 m, 60 beam ultraviolet laser facility that was unveiled in 1995 and can deliver more than 40 kJ of energy to a millimetre-sized target. A major resource in its own right, Omega has proved invaluable to designers of the National Ignition Facility – a 192 beam, 1.8 MJ laser that is approaching completion at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (see OLE April 2005 p24).

Bringing ideas to market
More than just a home for big science, Rochester wants to be seen as a place to do business. "Over the past ten years there has been much greater emphasis on seed capital, venture capital and the training and development of entrepreneurial skills," said Battley. "There is tremendous infrastructure here, which includes the Infotonics Technology Center (ITC)."

The ITC is a not-for-profit corporation formed in 2001 to operate New York State's Center of Excellence in Photonics and Microsystems. Industrial members include Corning, Eastman Kodak Company and Xerox Corporation together with academic partners from the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Cornell University, to name just a few institutions. "They are constructing the packaging lab right now," revealed Battley. "It is built on the concept of taking ideas and bringing them to the market."

Battley's office is located at the Lennox Tech Enterprise Center, a Rochester-based incubator for start-up entrepreneurs. Further down the road is Rochester Institute of Technology's own business incubator. These facilities are playing a key role in housing a new wave of optics firms in Rochester. "Around 12–15 of our members didn't exist 5 years ago and today they are up and running and hiring people," said Battley. "In fact, every single one of the members of our organization hired people in the last year and every one of them hired people in the year prior to that."

Expansion plans
Back at The Institute of Optics, the future has a definite medical theme thanks to a $30 m building that is due to be finished this month. Following a late-night brainstorming session in 2001, Knox and more than 60 faculty members came up with the idea of co-locating an expansion with the Department of Biomedical Engineering. From 1930 to 1978 the institute shared a building with the physics department with great collaborative success. Moving in with biomedical engineering (BME) allows the team to tackle one of the growth areas in photonics.

"I have lived through the big telecom bubble and it is important that we try to capture all of the areas that got so much investment – optical fibres, semiconductor lasers and high-speed detectors," said Knox. "One of the biggest problems is to lower the cost of healthcare and optical technologies have the promise of being faster, better and cheaper."

Knox explains that the plan is to make available a complete pipeline all the way from the fundamental and applied optics research through to putting in the optical engineering and building systems. Prototypes can be taken to the university's medical centre for testing, refined back in the lab and then launched as a start-up from one of Rochester's incubator sites.

The new BME-Optics building has more than 100,000 ft2; up for grabs. "We are formally in the building right now and have basement laboratories for nano-optics and biomedical engineering," said Knox. "The first floor is all public spaces, classrooms and lecture halls and the second and third floors are for biomedical engineering, which are complete. The fourth and fifth floors are for optics and will be finished on 2 April."

• See www.newyorkphotonics.org for information on Rochester's Regional Photonics Cluster.

• This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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