Rochester region aims to boost economy with growing photonics industry

Rochester has a leg up on other areas trying to capitalize on the growing photonics industry.

“Rochester has been, since 1853, since the founding of Bausch + Lomb, the center of the optics industry in the United States,” said Paul Ballentine, deputy director of the Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences at the University of Rochester. “We don’t want to say we are trying to get on the map, that would be a grave injustice to the community.”

In the area, photonics and related fields such as optics and imagining account for about 17,000 jobs at more than 75 companies. Statewide, the industry supports more than 25,000 jobs at 300 companies across New York state. The global market is about $500 billion with the Finger Lakes region accounting for about 1 percent of that market.

The optics industry is “morphing into something more broad called photonics,” Ballentine said.

“We have to continue to evolve and get more into opto-electronics and things like that. That is where we have a very concerted effort.”

– Paul Ballentine, Deputy Director, U of R Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences

The effort is tied to President Barack Obama’s plan to rebuild manufacturing in the United States. Rochester has competed in three programs so far and has been among the winners in each — receiving millions of dollars in grants and recognition that will likely deliver even more funding and support to the photonics industry. Rochester will be in the running for a fourth and possibly most significant program — the creation of a National Institute for Manufacturing Education devoted to optics and photonics.

“We’re batting a thousand here,” Ballentine said.

Thomas Battley, executive director of the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster (RRPC) said the optics and photonics industries in the area are in a transition period, shifting away from giant manufacturing firms like Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and Bausch + Lomb Inc.

The local industry now consists of smaller companies that don’t have the same resources or staffing to do the needed research and development. That’s why it’s important to attract government funding and land new companies to develop the industry, experts say.

“How do we get the nation to recognize that Rochester is not some place that big companies all left, and see it as a place where they ought to make investments and grow?” Battley said. “That’s the gold ring right there. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

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New York Photonics is a not-for-profit organization founded to promote and enhance the New York State optics, photonics and imaging industry by fostering the cooperation of business, academia and government.


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