This article discusses innovations and evolution in the optics industry. Local firms teamed with Monroe Community College to hold events that introduced high school students to optics . Paul Ballentine, who analyzes technology opportunities as deputy director of University of Rochester’s Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences, sees plenty of upside. Light-based systems are continuing to grow, but Rochester’s optics community will have to reinvent itself to thrive. The Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster has morphed into New York Photonics, with additional clusters in Buffalo, central New York, Albany, and Long Island. It now represents hundreds of optics and photonics companies throughout the state. Paul Conrow, who was teaching physical sciences at Rochester’s East High School, is now recruiting 10th graders and showing them Rochester’s optics industry. Conrow presented the idea to the district superintendent, who had been principal in the only school in America with a student eyeglass program. He introduced Conrow to teachers at a sister high school where members of the cluster were helping to plan a precision optics program.
Bausch & Lomb brought over skilled German lens grinders to make monocles and eyeglasses in the 1850s. Kodak employed those skilled lensmakers to mass produce cameras starting in 1888. Xerox emerged from Haloid Photographic, a company that used its knowledge of Kodak film chemistry to make photographic paper.
An infrastructure of optics: Above, University of Rochester's Laser Energetics Lab. Right, an LED array illuminates medical specimens.
How pluck, luck, and perseverance helped Rochester's optics industry get its groove back.
By 1995, it was clear
those companies were faltering. Bausch & Lomb had exited most lens businesses in the 1980s. Xerox had lost its stranglehold on the domestic market for copiers in the 1970s and was diversifying out of Rochester.
Kodak, which employed 60,000 people around Rochester in 1980, was already downsizing as it struggled with foreign competition and poor business decisions. By 2014, it would employ fewer than 5,000 people in the Rochester area.
Rochester could have been another dying Rustbelt city. Instead, led by smaller firms, the city's optical industry reinvented itself and preserved the superb technical training program that was the lifeblood of the industry.
It took persistence, preparation, a bit of luck, and a new way of seeing themselves. It began when Chris Cotton walked into Tom Battley's office in 1995 and asked, “What do you know about clusters?”
Cotton, an optics designer, had recently started his own company. Battley was still settling into his job as director of economic development for Monroe County, which includes Rochester.
At that point, the concept of clusters was only a few years old, but Battley had been reading up. Clusters happen when an industry congregates in a region, like computer technology in Silicon Valley and finance on Wall Street. Ecosystems of suppliers, schools, and specialized services sprout to serve it. As people and ideas circulate, they spawn new opportunities and businesses that make the cluster even more competitive.
Cotton wanted to create a group that would take advantage of Rochester's optics and photonics cluster. That included the big firms like Kodak, but also the smaller firms that Battley was just getting to know. Battley had learned about them when he visited Rochester Photonics on his first field trip as director of economic development.
“I came from a manufacturing background and had always worked with engineers, but I had no idea what these guys were doing,” Battley said. “They were making polymer surfaces engineered at the micron level, and I couldn’t even understand why people would need something like that.”
The company's owner, Michael Morris, told Battley that Rochester had many firms like his that specialized in one piece of the manufacturing process. Battley found more than 50, making products as diverse as night vision goggles and lenses for manufacturing semiconductors. Many were hiring and expanding.
The city also had strong optics programs at its schools. Morris, for example, had been a researcher at University of Rochester's Institute of Optics, the nation's first optics program. Rochester Institute of Technology offered top Ph.D. programs in imaging and color science. The city hosted two federally funded laboratories, one for lasers and the other for optics manufacturing. Monroe Community College had a program to train optical technicians.
It was the very definition of a cluster, but the companies that drove it were beginning to fall apart.
Beer and chicken wings crowd
“The day before Kodak announced they were laying off thousands more people, they would send over their government relations director to tell us,” Battley said. “The next day, it would be on the front page. The newspaper reporters would bang on the door of the county executive and mayor and want to know about our shrinking economy.”
On the front pages, Rochester looked like another withering northern industrial city. Yet Battley knew Rochester was growing jobs faster than Kodak could lay off workers.
Cotton wanted his business to grow too. “I read a book about word-of-mouth marketing, and one of the things it said was to join an organization and take an active role to get your name out,” he recalled. “I looked around and there wasn’t one.”
But Cotton did find an informal optics group that met irregularly for chicken wings and beer. It attracted many of Rochester's small business owners to trade information and exchange gossip.
“I jumped on it,” Cotton said.
The group began meeting monthly. It attracted new members. One was Jim Sydor, who joined his father's small firm after graduating from Monroe Community College's optical technician program. Kodak made up three-quarters of Sydor Optics’ business. Like the others, Sydor needed to reinvent the family business.
So when Bob Breault, a successful optical engineering entrepreneur from Tucson, Ariz., came to town, several beer-and-wings guys went to hear him speak. Breault talked about clusters, and how he positioned Tucson's optical industry as Optics Valley, the center of the nation's optics industry.
Cotton, who was there, had never thought of Rochester's optical industry that way before. Yet Rochester had a larger and more established optical industry than Tucson. Cotton asked Battley to help him put it on the map. Two weeks after the visit, the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster was born.
“We realized we had to do what they did in Arizona,” Battley said. “We had to promote our cluster.
“We wanted people to know that if a Rochester company recruited you, you could move here and there would be sufficient opportunity if it did not work out. This was not the land that Kodak forgot.”
This was not the land that Kodak forgot.
Shows of force
The Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster sought ways to promote itself. Instead of going to trade shows individually, they rented an aisle as a group.
“Now everyone knows they can come here to design their device, make the optics and electronics, and assemble it in a precision housing. It's one-stop shopping,” Sydor said.
To raise its profile, the group approached an international optical society, SPIE, to launch a biennial conference on optics fabrication in Rochester. The conference, OptiFab, opened in 2003 and drew 1,700 people, 500 more than expected. The cluster also convinced the Optical Society, which was founded in Rochester 1916, to hold some of its annual meetings, including its 100th anniversary, in the city. The cluster also drew several small but prestigious NASA and Naval Air meetings.
It was not all smooth sailing. The year after OptiFab opened, the University of Rochester's Center for Optics Manufacturing, one of the city's two key laboratories, closed. Meanwhile, Kodak's business was crumbling as digital cameras ate away its film business.
Many smaller optics firms had already diversified and survived Kodak's fall. But they were just waking up to the fact that they relied on Kodak to train their technical workforce.
Optical technicians are the men and women who build prototypes, and set up and run the manufacturing systems. Kodak had partnered with Monroe Community College to teach its employees these skills. Kodak funded MCC's labs and its 30 to 40 tuition-paying students every year paid the salaries of the program's three full-time professors.
“That program was important,” Cotton said. “For every engineer, you need two or three technicians. There is no other place technicians can go to get that type of training.” Cotton and others recruited MCC students or hired them away from Kodak.
Without Kodak to fill those seats, the program had withered to just three students by the time Dianna Phillips joined the college as dean of technical education in 2005.
“The technology we had was obsolete, and some of the faculty had been there a long time and didn’t want to update the curriculum,” she recalled. She had to decide whether or not to pull the plug on the program.
Then she began talking with Battley, Cotton, Sydor, and others. They made it clear how much they needed the community college graduates and offered to help. Industry leaders helped Phillips update the curriculum. They spent hours interviewing new adjunct faculty candidates.
One was Josh Cobb, who learned about the adjunct position while substituting in a baseball game. Cobb came to Kodak from IBM in 1996, and was working at Corning Advanced Optics. He had designed precision optical instruments for more than 20 years, and had taught classes at IBM.
“I said I would like find out about the position, but when I called, I was told they couldn’t discuss it until I filled out an application,” Cobb recalled. “I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, and they called and asked me to come in.
“I was ambushed. It was a full-blown interview, with five or six people—I knew all of them—across the table from me. Three days later, I received a letter welcoming me to the faculty and telling me that I started in two weeks.”
With no time to prepare, Cobb offered to teach a lab instead.
The school still had only a handful of students, but it was upgrading on the fly. Phillips wanted access to modern equipment, but had no money. So she asked photonics cluster members for help. One company let the college hold a class in its factory.
“We hired their engineers as adjunct faculty and got a world-class optical machining course. That's how closely they worked with us,” Phillips said.
Student numbers began to rise, but not fast enough to offset costs. Phillips found herself reselling the program to the new college presidents and provosts as administrations changed.
“Industry needed our graduates,” Phillips said. “They could get good jobs, and we were doing what community colleges were supposed to do. But the better story was to show how local industry leaders were in it with us.”
She remembers taking a new president to eight different optics companies in one day, introducing presidents and CEOs, and also MCC graduates. Each stop showed the local commitment to the program. She also brought around science and technology faculty, so they could learn about opportunities for optical technicians.
The cluster tried to generate interest. It sent press releases about expansions and new companies to local newspapers, and gave talks about opportunities in optics. Members opened their shops for tours. They held events for high school students at the community college campus.
To really fill seats, MCC needed a pipeline from local high schools. All it took was a teacher upset about the time it took for one of his students to get eyeglasses.
The next generation
Paul Conrow was teaching physical sciences at Rochester's East High School. A few days into the new term, he rearranged his class. Cedric, a tall, awkward student, moved from the front to the back of the classroom. His behavior plummeted.
Conrow quickly diagnosed the problem. Cedric saw nothing from the back of the room and was easily distracted. Conrow called Cedric's mother and the school nurse, yet it took until mid-February for Cedric to get glasses.
“Rochester is one of the poorest school districts in the nation,” Conrow said. “It's not like the mom didn’t care. She worked and didn’t qualify for free glasses, and like the parents of many urban students, she didn’t have the time or money to make glasses priority.”
While Conrow was glad that Cedric got his glasses, he was upset it took so long. “So I did what any hot-blooded American male would do,” he said. “I made a PowerPoint.”
The presentation outlined a plan for a school workshop that would teach students to make eyeglasses for other students. Conrow's best friend at the school, a biology teacher who spent three years as a Navy optician, would teach the course.
Conrow presented the idea to the district superintendent, who had been principal in the only school in America with a student eyeglass program. He introduced Conrow to teachers at a sister high school where members of the cluster were helping to plan a precision optics program. There, he met Battley.
“Tom took me on tours of these precision optics factories,” Conrow recalled. “I saw that 80 percent of the people were skilled technicians. I thought, ‘We could train high school kids to do this level of work.’ ”
He put that thought on the back burner while he put together a $30,000 proposal for a school optician shop. Meanwhile, the state ordered Rochester to close East's sister school. That school had already lined up a $150,000 federal technology grant that East High inherited. Conrow learned about it when the principal invited him into his office.
“He said, ‘We need a budget by tomorrow at 5 p.m. Otherwise, we’ll have to order laptops and smartboards. Can you spend it?’ ” Conrow said.
Conrow immediately got on the phone with Battley, Cobb, and others he had met. The next morning, he went to a diner with Jim VanKouwenberg, a training coordinator at OptiMax Systems, a specialist in complex lenses. Together, they pored over catalogs and put together an optics lab.
They had only weeks to spend the grant money. Fortunately, Tony Marino, president of another optics manufacturer, Advanced Glass Industries, also dealt in used equipment. He fulfilled the shopping list by the June 30 deadline.
“For every dollar we spent, Tony gave us five dollars of machinery,” Conrow said.
That happened in spring 2010. On the last Friday in January, Conrow received an email from the state. East High School had won a $466,666 grant for its optics initiative. The state had forgotten to notify him in August and, naturally, everything was due immediately.
By then, Conrow knew where to turn for help. And today, East High School has a world-class lab capable of making industry-grade optics. The vision care class is also up and running.
“We have to aim very high, so that we can train kids with the exact skills that employers want and need,” Conrow said.
Conrow is now recruiting 10th graders and showing them Rochester's optics industry. Instead of the dirty, noisy factories they expect, he takes them to clean workplaces with polished white floors. Some come back and sign up for optics classes. They may take jobs when they graduate or enter MCC's optics program. When they get there, the students will already have college credits from their high school courses.
The photonics cluster is reaching out to other high schools to create similar programs. As the pipeline builds and word of the MCC's program grows, the school is receiving job postings from optics companies in other states.
For several years, Conrow joked that his high school workshop was better than MCC's labs. That will change. The community college recently landed a $500,000 grant for new equipment from the Corning Foundation, whose parent, Corning, makes optical glass and has close ties with the cluster. Sydor matched it with a $250,000 grant of his own.
At University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, optics programs continue to turn out talented scientists and engineers who quickly find jobs.
Meanwhile, the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster has morphed into New York Photonics, with additional clusters in Buffalo, central New York, Albany, and Long Island. It now represents hundreds of optics and photonics companies throughout the state.
Of course, it is never clear sailing. While Rochester survived the great recession, its manufacturers suffered. This included Bausch & Lomb. Valeant Pharmaceuticals bought it last year, moved its headquarters to New Jersey, and downsized its operations.
Paul Ballentine, who analyzes technology opportunities as deputy director of University of Rochester's Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences, sees plenty of upside. Light-based systems are continuing to grow, but Rochester's optics community will have to reinvent itself to thrive.
“They have got to recruit more companies that do integrated photonics, combining display and electronics, to Rochester,” Ballentine said. “We’ve got the highest concentration of optic companies in the country. It's a good base to build on.”
And, he might have added, one that knows how to adapt to change. ME