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  • Ottawa: 'We're Number One in Photonics'
May 2002
OTTAWA, May 6 -- When Ottawa's Scott Marshall is asked to comment about how Canada's capital stacks up against other high-tech centers around the world, his bullish response is anything but the kind of self-effacing modesty one so often gets from Canadians.

"Ottawa is one of the big high-tech centers in North America, and for that matter, the world," says Marshall. "But in terms of optical companies, I would argue that Ottawa is number one."

Marshall is president and CEO of Ceyba Inc., an Ottawa-based photonics company that specializes in next-generation core optical networks. The company, founded in May 2000, already employs about 250 high-tech workers. A month after it opened, Ceyba set a new Canadian record for seed investments that weighted in at US $15 million. A year later, it set a new investment record for private telecom startups: $93 million.

Marshall says Ceyba, like so many startup photonics companies in Ottawa, has the advantage of being able to draw on a wealth of local talent and on an equally impressive research base.

"There's a huge amount of talent in the telecommunications space," he explains. "We have leading-edge companies in the market and we have leading-edge research. Because of these two factors, in terms of optics, we very much lead the world."

Marshall's assessment is echoed by Wes Biggs, president and CEO of Meriton Networks, a company that also got underway in the spring of 2000. Unlike his fledgling company, Biggs is a 20-year telecom industry veteran.

"Our company is made up of former Nortel and Newbridge people," says Biggs, himself a former employee of both companies. "These are people who are used to putting carrier-class equipment on the market. There's a high concentration of that kind of talent in this city, and it's what startup companies like ours can draw from."

As Biggs goes on to explain, Meriton and other photonics companies are using the sophisticated transmission, networking and switching backgrounds of local employees and applying these skills to the medium of fiber optics.

"Ottawa has a very deep skills set that is ideal for serving our customers, the large telephone companies. We also have a very loyal workforce. People who live and work in this area want to remain here. They like the lifestyle."

Marshall concurs. "One of the reasons I came here from Toronto in the first place was because I liked the quality of life. Lots of parks. Ski hills nearby. Lakes nearby. Good schools."

Two of those schools -- Carleton University and the University of Ottawa -- are responsible for many of the city's new recruits, says Marshall.

"I'm sure a lot of people are attracted to Canada and to Ottawa by our universities. They come here for post-graduate studies, like it and stay. That is certainly true for a lot of our founders, for example," he adds.

Ottawa's strong industrial base, strong research capacity and quality of life combine to make photonics big business. And it's big business for Ontario, too.

About 80 percent of Canada's photonics companies are located in that province. Half of these are in Ottawa. In addition to industry giants such as Nortel Networks, JDS Uniphase and Alcatel, the city is home to an additional 80 small and medium-sized enterprises. The local photonics industry employs an estimated 13,500 workers and generates $5 billion in annual sales.

More than fiber optics
While telecommunications applications get most of the attention, there's much more to Ottawa photonics than fiber optics, networking and switching equipment.

Brian Booth is the director of engineering at Neptec Design Group Limited. The 11-year-old company is a prime contractor with NASA. Among other things, it provides the agency with a space vision system that processes image data and allows astronauts to manipulate objects in space with precision.

"Whenever you talk about photonics in Ottawa you immediately think about telecommunications," says Booth. "But there are a lot of photonics companies in Ottawa that are working in areas other than telecommunications: Image processing. Laser cameras. Bio-physicsphotonics. Neptec is also looking at applications below the ground and on the ground. One of these is in the medical field -- radio radiation therapy. If it works the way we think it will, there"s a $300 million market out there. And that's just one application."

Finding and testing those new applications is about to get a lot easier in Ottawa and for Canadian-based companies. Last December, the federal government approved funding to create a Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre in the capital's renowned National Research Council. The new center will be used for research and training and to manufacture and test prototypes developed by Canadian researchers and companies working in the field. The facility is expected to create an estimated 2,300 additional jobs by its tenth year of operation and pump an additional $840 million into the local economy over the same period.

"The new photonics fabrication center will be a real shot in the arm -- a real boost," says John Armitage, chair of Carleton University's physics department. "This new facility will make a tremendous difference. It will complement the research capabilities we have in Ottawa and throughout Canada. And it will keep us at the forefront of research and commercialization." Armitage is involved in a project that will give his university and industry colleagues a look a what's in store for Canada's photonics industry, and at the same time showcase innovations that are attracting attention worldwide.

In addition to his work at Carleton, Armitage is chair of Opto-Canada 2002, a two-day photonics conference that's expected to draw some 800 participants when it opens at the Ottawa Congress Centre on Thursday. Study and discussion topics will include ultrafast lasers, material processing and optical machining, biophotonics, optical imaging, space Participants are expected to come from Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, as well as high-tech centers across the Northeast United States.

Closer Collaboration
According to Armitage, the research and academic communities have never given Ottawa much recognition for its work in photonics. One of the reasons, he says, is that university and industry researchers haven't collaborated as closely as they might have. That, too, is changing.

January saw the launch of a new research association: OPRA, the Ottawa Photonics Research Alliance. The new group is made up of photonics researchers at Carleton and the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College, the Universite du Quebec a Hull, the National Research Council, the Communications Research Centre and the National Capital Institute of Telecommunications.

"The next stage will be to link this group to its industry counterpart: the Ottawa Photonics Cluster," says Armitage. "These two groups will come together at Opto-Canada. For the first time, we'll be bringing the entire community together." Alex Mayman knows that community well. Mayman is a liaison officer with Photonics Research Ontario (PRO), an Ontario "center of excellence" that is working to build the kinds of bridges between university researchers and their industry counterparts that's a focus of the OPTO Canada conference. In addition, he is executive director of the Canadian Photonics Consortium and secretary of the Ottawa Photonics Cluster.

"We see Ottawa, both nationally and internationally, as a first-class center of photonics excellence," says Mayman. "Much of the city's success has been on the industrial side. The universities of Toronto, Waterloo and McMaster -- all of which are in Ontario, but not in Ottawa -- have demonstrated a very high degree of academic and research excellence. Combine their strengths with what you find at our local universities -- Carleton and Ottawa -- the National Research Council and local industry, and you have the makings of a global leader."

And, as Mayman explains, the universities aren't the only institutions to be gearing up to meet new employment demands in photonics. With support from PRO, Ottawa's Algonquin College has just introduced a new program to train technicians and technologists for the burgeoning industry.

Peter Casey is chair of applied research and emerging technology at Algonquin. "I'm convinced that this industry is going to continue to take off in Ottawa," he says. "We have so much expertise and there are so many companies that have gravitated to Ottawa. Our base is remarkably strong, and I'm sure it will stand the test of time."

Last September, Algonquin admitted about 30 students to the new three-year program in photonics engineering technology. The college is so confident in the future, says Casey, that next year it will be taking 72 students into the first year of the program -- more than double the number that was admitted last year.

"There was a bit of a downturn in the industry this year, and that has produced a surplus in the employment market," says Casey. "But I believe the industry is going to rebound within the next six to eight months. Meanwhile, there are so many applications beyond telecommunications. Domestic applications as well. It's already beginning."

Omur Sezerman is president of OZ Optics, a company that's been around since 1985. Sezerman, like Casey, is counting on the so-called metro market of household applications to explode. It nearly did with the phenomenon, he says. The timing was off by a few years, but it may yet resurface.

"The dot.coms were the right idea, but they came at the wrong time," says Sezerman. "They came on board without the fast Internet connections to the home that they required in order to work. The backbone of the system wasn't there. There wasn't sufficient bandwidth for the consumer to make good use of the dot.coms from their homes."

Mayman is confident that fiber to the home is just a matter of time.

"I'm convinced that only fiber will give us the capabilities we'll need," he says. "Some people argue that we'll only need fiber to the curb and that wireless will do the rest. But either way, all of that copper is going to need to be replaced sooner or later."

Neptec's Brian Booth, meanwhile, continues to press for other uses of light.

"We've got to get the message out that there's more to photonics than pure fiber optical communications," he says. "There are follow-on applications that are as big if not bigger than the communications market."

Booth, who moved to Ottawa about 20 years ago, shares Scott Marshall's enthusiasm for the Canadian capital.

Booth quips , "I keep saying, if you have to live in a big city, Ottawa's the best."

No modesty here, either.

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