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Turning photonics into jobs in Rochester with state’s help

When Vice President Biden and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came to Rochester last July to announce plans for a $600 million hub for photonics in the city, the hope was that the research center would be a magnet for companies within the industry.

This week, the photonics manufacturing initiative landed its first two companies – Photonica and Avogy – which pledged to bring 800 jobs in Rochester and spur the creation of more than 600 other jobs at other companies that provide supplies and services to the manufacturers.

The project will use a model similar to the Buffalo Billion economic-development effort in which the state builds and helps equip the factories that the companies occupy.

“That’s going to be transformational for us,” said Robert J. Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and Cuomo’s former lieutenant governor.

The state agreed to spend $75 million to build “clean rooms” and purchase production equipment for the companies.

Photonica, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based company that makes visual and display technology that is used in ultrahigh-definition televisions and large video displays, pledged to create 400 jobs at its research operations at the photonics hub and advanced manufacturing operations at Eastman Business Park. The company currently has some operations at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Colleges of Nanoscale Sciences and Engineering in Albany.

Avogy, a Silicon Valley company that is developing inexpensive yet highly efficient power electronics technology that can be used in devices ranging from laptop chargers to data centers and electric vehicles, promised to employ nearly 400 workers, with an average annual salary of more than $80,000, within five years of its opening.

Avogy’s base technology, which is built around a semiconductor manufacturing process that uses a substance known as gallium nitride, is similar to the technology used by Soraa, the LED-lighting company that originally was slated to move to Buffalo but ultimately shifted to Syracuse after the SolarCity solar panel factory project expanded in scope.

Avogy, which has 48 employees, also plans to move its headquarters to Rochester.

In each case, the state, following a model that it used to develop the semiconductor industry in Albany and in Buffalo with SolarCity, has agreed to invest in state-of-the-art clean rooms and other equipment that can be used by the companies. Both companies have also agreed to do advanced manufacturing work in Rochester.

The photonics hub, backed by $110 million in federal Defense Department grant money along with $250 million in funding from the state, has been 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 contributing $250 million toward the initiative.

“It’s a great partnership,” Duffy said. “We are in the midst of a transformation in this region.”

The hub is aimed at bridging the gap between photonics research and 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 state-of-the-art research and development is here, and the companies will come,” Cuomo said.

But a healthy 21st-century economy needs more than a strong research base, Cuomo said during a stop in Rochester for the announcement Wednesday.

The governor emphasized that the economy needs manufacturing, too, which makes the production plans of Avogy and Photonica an important part of the state’s overall development plan. “If you want to have a viable economy and a sustainable economy, you have to make something,” Cuomo said.

“This is advanced manufacturing. This is the future of the economy.”

Rochester, which has a rich history in the optics industry with companies such as Eastman Kodak and Bausch & Lomb, already is home to the largest photonics cluster in the country, with 24,000 people already working in the sector.

The new manufacturing institute and the companies that it is attracting will add to that as they develop over the next five years.

The hub also is bringing together universities from the Rochester area and beyond with major companies, from Corning and Intel to IBM, General Electric and Northrop Grumman. The hub’s academic partners include, among others, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s a no-brainer to bet on Rochester,” said Howard A. Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who serves as president of Empire State Development.

Photonics technology could allow U.S. manufacturers to 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.