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Entrepreneurial spirit creates optical oasis

08 May 2008

Tucson in Arizona, US, is recognized as an emerging leader in the knowledge-based global economy, and optics is a key driver. Jacqueline Hewett speaks to community leaders in academia and industry to discover the factors that are fuelling the city's growth.

The city of Tucson in southern Arizona, US, is often referred to as "Optics Valley" because of the high concentration of optics-related firms and the large pool of highly qualified professionals that have located there. In the last 10 years alone, the population of Tucson and the surrounding area has passed the one million milestone and the number of people working in optics state-wide has grown from 2500, producing revenues of $180 m (€114 m) to 25,000 with revenues of $2.3 bn.

This monumental growth comes from a number of factors, not least an optics community where all individuals are pulling in the same direction to achieve a common goal. Tucson is home to the University of Arizona's world-renowned College of Optical Sciences (COS), a role-model cluster in the form of the Arizona Optics Industry Association, and active economic development bodies that strive to generate more wealth in the community.

"We understand that it takes multiple organizations with global vision to support the development of the optics industry," John Grabo, director of marketing and international programs at the University of Arizona's Office of Economic Development, told OLE. "It is essential for Tucson to co-ordinate activities. The challenge is to keep up with the changes in industry and new applications. The needs of companies change as the economy changes and we must be agile in order to adapt."

College of Optical Sciences
The COS is the linchpin for much of the optics industry in Tucson. With a history deeply rooted in astronomy, the college was first established in 1964 and has grown into a prestigious teaching and research institution that graduates more optics students than any other body in the US.

The COS runs an undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in conjunction with the university's College of Engineering. "We have about 180 students on this programme and in 2007 we graduated 39 students with a degree in optical sciences and engineering – the highest number to date," said Jim Wyant, dean of the COS. "We also have around 225 graduate students, of which three quarters are PhD students and the remainder are Masters students."

Other initiatives include a distance learning programme, where courses are streamed over the internet and students take exams to gain qualifications, and short courses that are available to purchase on DVD for professionals wanting to top-up their optics knowledge.

Turning to research, the strengths of the COS can broadly be broken down into quantum optics, photonics and applied optics, and optical engineering. A key theme to all threads of research is its interdisciplinary nature and cross-over with other colleges at the university.

"We have 60 members of faculty whose home is the COS," explained Wyant. "We also have around 35 faculty members whose home is a different college, but they are very much involved with our programme. Then we have another 60 adjunct faculty members whose home is another university or even in industry."

A good example is the interdisciplinary team involved in fabricating and characterizing the two 8.4 m primary mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT). The LBT sits on Mount Graham, not far from Tucson, and achieved first light in March this year.

Both giant mirrors were fabricated at the Steward Observation Mirror Laboratory, which is housed under the city's football stadium. "The mirrors are a radical departure from conventional solid-state glass mirrors," explained Wyant. "They are made of borosilicate glass and have a honeycomb structure on the inside. The glass is melted, moulded and spun-cast into a paraboloid shape using a custom-designed rotating furnace. The laboratory director is Roger Angel, who is joint between the COS and the astronomy department in the College of Science."

Local firm 4D Technology was heavily involved in characterizing the surface quality of the primary mirrors. "Our core technology is a pixellated mask phase sensor," Chip Ragan, the company's director of marketing explained. "Instead of conventional red, green or blue pixels, our camera has phase-shift pixels (0, 90, 180 and 270°) interspersed across the sensor. In a single exposure, we can capture all of the information that you need to make a phase-shifted wavefront measurement. This is used to measure optical grade surfaces, even in the presence of vibration and air turbulence."

University–industry interaction
There is a significant amount of interaction between the COS and the local optics industry in Tucson. "The COS receives about 13% of its money from the state and the rest has to come from outside grants and contracts," explained Wyant. "This generates an entrepreneurial and independent spirit as essentially each research group has to finance and fund itself."

Indeed, this entrepreneurial spirit runs through the blood of the majority of faculty members at the COS and spin-offs are common and encouraged. For example, Bob Breault, the president of optical design software specialists Breault Research Organization, was the first spin-off from the COS back in 1979. More recent examples include NP Photonics, a fibre-laser maker that was founded in 1998 by Nasser Peyghambarian.

"We started the firm to commercialize a simple method of amplifying light as it travels through a fibre-optic cable and were working on tiny fibre amplifiers for telecoms applications," said Peyghambarian. "When the telecoms industry crashed, NP Photonics became a fibre-laser company overnight."

Today, NP Photonics produces single-frequency fibre lasers, amplified fibre lasers and amplified spontaneous emission sources, and Peyghambarian is chairman of the board. The company is based at the University's Science and Technology Park, which is home to both start-ups and household names such as IBM and Raytheon, Tucson's largest employer. Other optics firms that are based at the park are high-power diode laser specialist DILAS Diode Laser and fibre-optics developer OZ Optics.

Back at the university, Peyghambarian, who is also a faculty member at the College of Engineering, has recently teamed up with scientists at Nitto Denko Technical Corporation in San Diego, to produce a rewritable hologram ideal for 3D holographic displays (see OLE March, p10).

"There are many ways that we work with industry," commented Peyghambarian. "For example, several of my patents have been licensed. I have also started a second firm called TIPD LLC, which focuses on plastic optoelectronics."

It is worth noting that the COS is responsible for the highest number of patents filed every year by the University of Arizona. "The university does about 100 per year and of that we typically do 30–35," commented Wyant. "We are by far the largest and it has been that way for a number of years."

Bringing the community closer
The high calibre of graduates from the COS and the experienced workforce at local firms is also an attraction for companies looking to relocate or expand. "Over the last 40 years of our existence, about 15% of our graduates have stayed in Tucson," commented Wyant. "But over the last five years, this has risen to 35% because there are so many companies in the area and so many job opportunities."

One of the many firms that has been attracted to the Tucson area is Edmund Optics. When the firm decided that it needed more of a west-coast US presence in 1999, location was a key factor.

"We decided on Tucson because it was easy to establish an office here, the cost of living was lower and we were close to a lot of our west-coast customers," said Jeremy Govier, director of Edmund Optics' Tucson Design Centre. "However, we quickly realized that there was another massive advantage: there is a lot of fresh talent coming out of the university as well as more experienced people."

According to Govier, what was initially a sales office quickly turned into a dedicated design centre. "We have doubled our office space in Tucson in the last year and are bringing more corporate functions into the office. Our CEO is now officially a Tucson resident and spends over half of his time in Arizona," he said. "We are now the design hub for Edmund Optics – everything from catalogue optics right through to custom products."

Other initiatives that bring the community together are the COS's Industrial Affiliates programme and the Arizona Optics Industry Association (AOIA). Taking each of these in turn, the Industrial Affiliates programme is one way in which optics companies can partner with the COS and tap into the pool of students that will soon enter Tucson's workforce.

"We currently have over 50 companies that help to support our academic programme," said Wyant. "We run an annual workshop that brings members up to date with the college's research activities and gives members a chance to meet the faculty and the graduates. The latest workshop was our 29th and ran for one week."

The AOIA was established in 1992 and today has more than 300 members from across the state of Arizona that are classed as optics-related firms. "That's about 100 more than we had two years ago," said Breault, who heads up the AOIA. "Clusters are driven by small and medium enterprises and the vast majority of companies in Tucson fall into this category."

The overall mission of the AOIA is to promote the growth of the optics industry in Arizona. "The important metric is how well our members do," said Breault. "We market and represent the interests of the Arizona optics industry worldwide, facilitate networking and strategic partnering, and develop initiatives to provide educational opportunities. We are a mature and established cluster that is a role model to others."

Indeed, Breault has gone on to share his experiences and has helped to create more than 30 other clusters around the world.

Economic development
As well as the specific optics-related activities running at the College and through the AOIA, Tucson has a regional economic development body with the sole mission of creating more wealth in the local community. TREO, which stands for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, was formed in 2005 and is guided by community leaders in both the public and private sectors.

"TREO was established to focus on retention and expansion as well as attraction of businesses," Laura Shaw, TREO's senior vice-president of corporate and community affairs, told OLE. "We are focused on workforce and talent development. Our time is spent making sure that the local economy is diversified and taking advantage of our regional strengths."

Needless to say, optics has been identified as a regional strength. "Optics has become less of a standalone industry and is now embedded into other technologies that are key economic growth sectors for Tucson, such as biomedicine and biotechnology, defence and solar," commented Grabo. "There is certainly a notion of convergence. Optics is becoming a driver for more than optics alone. It is a driver that is helping to shape Tucson in many other areas."

Both Grabo and Shaw work closely with the critical mass of small and medium-sized optics companies in Tucson. "Part of our economic strategy has to be growing our own technology," observed Grabo. "We have to create the environment and infrastructure that supports start-ups and technology transfer."

Shaw uses the recent acquisition of university spin-off Ventana Medical Systems by Roche, a global healthcare and pharmaceutical giant, as a prime example. "If you nurture a great technology, you can grow in a lot of ways and one of these is investment via acquisition," she highlighted. "The potential spin-over from Roche is enormous. It is crucial that we support small emerging companies and bring wealth to the region."

Another key win for the university that has potential benefits for the optics community is the establishment of the Center of Excellence for Border Security and Immigration. The centre will receive $15 m over six years and the University of Arizona will lead the research effort.

"This is the latest example of how the university can leverage its geographical advantage to serve the people of Arizona," said the university's president Robert Shelton. "By applying the expertise of our faculty to the challenges of immigration and border security, we are expanding our standing as international leaders into a new realm of social challenges."

Overall, the strong sense of community, the encouragement given to small and medium enterprises, and the watchful eye of economic developers will no doubt ensure the long-term success of Tucson's optics industry. "Tucson is a destination city," concluded Grabo. "We are not going to get any smaller so are we are thoughtful, strategic and agile, otherwise we could miss the enormous economic opportunity created by optics."

• This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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