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Photonics Becoming Core Industry
Oct 2002
ROCHESTER, N.Y., Oct. 25 -- The photonics industry is beginning to emerge as the successor to the imaging and optical products industries that supported the Rochester economy well into the 1980s.

What's more, this emerging industry has the strength to be exceptionally diversified, suggesting it will be far more successful in the global economy than the more traditional industries that dominated the region from the 1930s through the 1980s, exemplified by Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. So says a preliminary report from Susan Christopherson, Cornell University professor of city and regional planning, and her team of graduate student planners. Results of the team's one-year study of Rochester's photonics industry were presented at a conference in that city this month attended by more than 60 industry, civic, community and labor leaders and venture capitalists.

The study is part of a two-year effort to foster a discussion about the potential for alternative economic development focused on the photonics industry in Rochester. It is being done in partnership with Rochester's Common Good Planning Center and the Upstate Alliance for Innovation. A full report from the Cornell researchers is due this December.

Photonics is the technology of generating and harnessing light and all forms of radiant energy. Lasers used in everything from medical microsurgery to precision manufacturing qualify as photonics, as do supermarket checkout bar-code scanners and roadside equipment that shows drivers just how fast they are going. This variety of products has broad applications, from communication and information processing to national defense, said Christopherson. That could bode well for Rochester's economy, because it may free the region from reliance on a single large industry, she said.

"In the 1980s, with the growth in global competition, the larger Rochester firms started to restructure, laying off thousands, and began to use subcontractors," said Christopherson. "In the past 20 years, a whole set of small and medium-size firms, many high-tech and involving photonics, have grown up in Rochester." But, she said, "This is a new economy, and, as such, it requires a change in economic development policy. To attract and keep talented people, which is the key ingredient in these kinds of industries, you need quality of place -- life, schools, multiple job opportunities, good cultural and recreational facilities and a vibrant center city," as well as specialized training of the existing work force, she said.

To determine how the photonics industry could be better supported in the Rochester region, Christopherson's team analyzed industry trends in the region and met with a wide range of people invested in the future of the region, including educators, labor leaders, photonics and precision optics firm executives and civic leaders. They examined how photonics firms in Rochester are connected with those in other parts of the United States and the world. And they conducted a survey of 90 Rochester photonics firms that yielded significant qualitative and quantitative response from 57 of them. The major finding: The photonics sector holds great promise for building the regional economy both as an innovation hub and as a manufacturing center.

"We found that while the vast majority of the photonics customers are scattered throughout the United States, outside the Rochester region, nearly all of the photonics firms' suppliers are within the region, a healthy sign for the economy," Christopherson said.

The study also showed a need for the training of underemployed and unemployed workers within the region in the kinds of skills needed in the photonics industry.

The conference brought together large and small firms and other stakeholders to develop a long-term photonics-based economic development agenda, including building a work force to serve this important emerging segment of the region's economy. Speakers discussed the work-force needs of Rochester firms; analyzed venture capital availability in the region; and shared workforce and industrial development strategies.

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