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Biden in Rochester announces grant for photonics hub

Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Andrew Cuomo revealed details Monday of a major economic development initiative in Rochester aimed at creating a $600 million hub for photonics in the city.

The initiative, backed by $110 million in federal Defense Department grant money along with $250 million in funding from the state, is viewed as a project that could bring thousands of new jobs to the Rochester area to support research in photonics and help businesses turn that research into new products and businesses. Private funding sources also are expected to contribute $250 million toward the initiative.

Photonics uses light to create advanced electronics products, from robotics to medical imaging and other technology. The Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation is one of several advanced manufacturing hubs created by the Obama administration. Rochester beat out sites in Florida and California for the manufacturing hub.

The Rochester area, with the backing of government, 20 universities, 33 community colleges and 55 businesses from across the country, has been competing for the photonics hub for more than three years.

“The competition was fierce and this consortium – and Rochester – won,” Cuomo said.

“Rochester, the future is here today,” Cuomo said. “We have a picture of what the next economic opportunity is.”

“The innovation and jobs this institute will create will be a game changer for Rochester and the entire state,” said U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Rochester. “This is a huge win that will shape our region’s economy for decades to come.”

Rochester already is the home of the largest photonics cluster in the country, with 24,000 people already working in the sector. The new manufacturing institute will only add to that as it is put into place over the next five years. The photovoltaics hub is expected to be the largest federal program of its kind.

The hub is aimed at bridging the gap between photonics research and the development of products that can be commercialized. The center is expected to include a wide range of assets for the photonics industry, ranging from a foundry and design tools to automated packaging, assembly and test facilities, along with workforce development efforts.

“The field of photonics is changing at an exponential rate,” Biden said.

“We see extraordinary potential for both civilian and military uses of integrated photonics,” he said during an announcement in the Rochester suburb of Greece. “This is one of the most promising areas we can move into.”

The hub will bring together universities from the Rochester area and beyond with major companies, from Corning and Intel to IBM, General Electric and Northrup Grumman. The hub’s academic partners will include the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, along with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.

In Western New York, Alfred University is part of the consortium, as is Erie Community College, Genesee Community College, Jamestown Community College and Niagara County Community College

“The photonics center we are now bringing to Rochester will harness the power of the Defense Department and the prowess of Rochester’s 24,000-employee-strong photonics industry and focus it like a laser beam to launch new industries, technologies and jobs,” U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer said in a statement.

“Creating a national manufacturing institute right here in Rochester is a major accomplishment,” said Bill Destler, the president of RIT. “This significant investment in our optics and photonics industries will ensure that Rochester continues to be a global leader in advanced manufacturing.”

The photonics institute could allow U.S. manufacturers to develop new technologies that tap into the light sciences to improve products that consumers use on a daily basis, from computer screens and smartphones to medical diagnostics and LED lighting, said Elizabeth Rogan, the chief executive officer of the Optical Society, an industry trade group.

Supporters of the center said photonics can be used to develop a wide range of new medical technology, from ways for diabetics to monitor their blood sugar level without needles, to tiny cameras that are smaller than a pill that can travel within arteries as a diagnostic tool. Photonics also is expected to reduce the cost of human genetic sequencing, which would be a valuable tool in developing personalized medical treatments.

Adding integrated photonics could increase the processing power of computer chips or allow broadband communications networks to carry 10 times more data than they currently do, Biden said. Data centers could be 100 times more efficient with integrated photonics.

For the military, photonics could improve battlefield imaging equipment and radar technology.