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UNM’s Photonics and Optics Programs Among the Best

Albuquerque, NM – March 11, 2015 The University of New Mexico and its specialized research centers for photonics and optics research and technology development were prominently featured in a recent series of articles in the March 9 edition of the Albuquerque Journal Business Outlook.

The University of New Mexico’s Center for High Technology Materials, a center of excellence in photonics and optics, and the School of Engineering’s Center for Biomedical Engineering are part of a growing photonics and optics technology cluster in New Mexico. Several technologies and start-up companies have been generated from the rich research in photonics and optics being done at the University of New Mexico, along with Sandia National Labs and the Air Force Research Lab. To read more, see Kevin Robinson-Avila’s March 9 articles, “Optics, photonics industry hub shines brightly in NM,” “NM emerging as a hotbed for optics startup firms,” and “NM companies find robust niche in photonics,” from the Albuquerque Journal Business Outlook, reprinted below.

Optics, photonics industry hub shines brightly in NM

A small Albuquerque startup’s ground-breaking optical communications technology has earned the backing of international telecommunications giants.

Skorpios Technologies Inc. launched in 2009 with homegrown technology that allows it to merge silicon with traditional materials used in optical communications, a fundamental breakthrough that many industry heavyweights have failed to achieve. That could radically reduce production costs for high-speed data transfer operations – by up to fivefold compared to today’s technologies, according to the company – because silicon is far less expensive and easier to manipulate for high-volume manufacturing than other materials used in optics chips.

The company has attracted more than $23 million in venture capital, including hefty investments from such giants as Nokia Siemens Networks, Deutsche Telekom of Germany and Sweden’s Ericcson. And now, with its technology proven, it’s moved from research and development to aggressively marketing its optical chips and devices.

“We started generating our first income at the beginning of the year,” said President and CEO Stephen Krasulick. “We have a lot of engagement with investors and customers to develop things for them. There’s broad interest in our technology and what it enables.”

That’s lightning speed by any standard for a small, homegrown startup. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg in what New Mexico has to offer in the field of optics and photonics.

Photonics is basically the study and manipulation of light, or photons, to create new capabilities in everything from data transfer to imaging and sensing. Optics tools – such as detectors, sensors, lasers, lenses and mirrors – help harness that energy.

Optics, photonics hub

In the past two to three decades, the state has become a bustling center for not just research and development of light-based technologies, but also for grassroots industrial engineering capability and activity.

A robust manufacturing industry has emerged here, largely inspired by work at the state’s national labs and research universities, around which scores of companies large and small have sprung up to create a true industry cluster with national and international recognition.

So much so that the University of New Mexico is now part of an interstate team of five universities that is on the shortlist of places to become a federally backed “center of excellence” in integrated photonics manufacturing. The winning team, to be announced in July, will have access to $110 million in government matching funds to create public-private partnerships to build new technologies and optics-based businesses.

And, as the industry grows, New Mexico’s optics and photonics engineering and manufacturing achievements are outgrowing dependency on the labs and federal dollars to generate numerous independent startups like Skorpios, as well as small, medium and large firms that offer products and services nationally and internationally, said Jim McNally, chair of the New Mexico Optics Association.

“It’s still not completely independent of the labs, but it’s no longer solely dependent on them either,” McNally said.

The association published its first comprehensive study of the local industry in February, which showed that 96 optics and photonics firms currently operate in New Mexico, employing 6,234 people. Together, they account for 8 percent of the state’s manufacturing revenue. But with 81 percent of the companies concentrated in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, the industry’s impact here is much larger, accounting for 22 percent of manufacturing revenues in Bernalillo County and 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

Local industry is now poised to take a leadership role in the rapidly emerging area of optics and photonics technology, which in the past few decades has contributed to a revolution in everything from telecommunications to modern medicine, robotics, automotive improvements, displays such as flat-screen TVs, and satellite imaging and communications.

The labs connection

The development of lasers in the 1960s led to fiber optics breakthroughs in the 1980s and 1990s that helped develop the Internet and modern high-speed communications, as well as modern defense systems that use lasers to destroy targets, and sensing and imaging systems for surveillance or detection of chemical weapons or biohazards.

More recently, light technologies have been adapted for medical applications in things like laser surgery, and detecting and diagnosing illnesses. Photonics, as well, provide the backbone for the burgeoning use of solar generation to power homes, businesses and even cities.

Research by both Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory has played a central role from the start in developing these core technologies, and spurring the private industry in New Mexico to provide the products and services needed by the labs.

But it’s the Air Force Research Laboratory, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, that has played perhaps the key role in building local industry because of the broad work it does in directed energy research, and development for space applications and use on the battlefield. The AFRL, in cooperation with homegrown New Mexico engineering firms and industry giants like Boeing and Raytheon, has developed advanced laser systems that could soon be mounted on Navy ships to shoot down missiles and on ground vehicles to destroy things like improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The work has also led to advanced solar power systems, laser-based telecommunications, and ground-breaking sensing and measuring tools for satellites and other space vehicles.

And much of that technology development has, in turn, contributed to new or improved photonics for commercial applications, said David Hostutler, senior research scientist with AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.

“We do a great deal of in-house research, but we also reach outside the fence a lot to tap the knowledge base surrounding us,” Hostutler said. “Businesses are smart and they go where the money is, and that’s helped many small firms in Albuquerque grow into larger businesses. The AFRL in that sense has really spun out the local photonics hub.”

Searching for breakthroughs

The AFRL and the other labs have also worked closely with UNM to develop the skilled workforce needed to staff the photonics industry, and to work on joint research and development projects. UNM, in turn, has built up its own expertise to become a center of excellence in its own right for optics and photonics, particularly through its Center for High Technology Materials, which since the 1980s has conducted in-depth research with lasers and the manipulation of materials at the nanoscale.

The center’s acquisition in 2010 of a $1.5 million molecular beam epitaxy machine made it one of only two universities in the country that can build semiconductor nanocrystals one atom at a time in layers for research and development of devices with unique capabilities in optics and photonics, particularly in the area of infrared sensing and imaging. The machine, for example, has allowed the center to create “quantum dots” – incredibly small, three-dimensional structures that can manipulate light in unique ways for use in infrared cameras and detectors.

That work could lead to more technology breakthroughs, such as devices that allow pilots to see through clouds or firefighters to see through smoke, said CHTM Director Sanjay Krishna.

It’s a key reason why UNM is part of the interstate team of five universities now competing for federal funds to set up a consortium of integrated photonics manufacturing hubs that would allow the government, academia and industry to work together to improve optics and photonics technology. Also on UNM’s team are the University of Southern California, several in the University of California system, the University of Arizona and Ohio State University.

The goal of the consortium is to lower manufacturing costs for photonics technology the way the semiconductor industry has cut the cost of microelectronics production to make things like personal computers affordable, said Joe Cecchi, dean of UNM’s School of Engineering.

“It could really expand the commercial use of photonics to make those technologies far more accessible,” Cecchi said.

As new technologies emerge through public-private partnerships, it could also lead to a lot more business development and good-paying jobs in New Mexico, Krishna said.

NM emerging as a hotbed for optics startup firms

The explosion in optics and photonics technology in everything from superfast laser communications to medical devices is creating huge opportunities to launch new business ventures, and New Mexico is well-positioned to tap that growing market.

Photonics, or the study and manipulation of light, has revolutionized the field of telecommunications because photons are way faster and far more efficient in carrying data across long distances than electrons. The use of photons for imaging, sensing and electric generation is also creating groundbreaking progress in medical diagnostics and treatment, energy-efficient lighting, and automation and robotics.

The global market for photonics and optics tools, such as detectors, lasers and sensors, reached $780 billion in 2014, according to the International Society for Optics and Photonics. And the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies, with the aim of raising global awareness about how optics and photonics can promote sustainable development and provide solutions to world challenges in energy, health and other fields.

With decades of federally backed research at New Mexico’s national labs and research universities, the state is particularly well poised to take advantage of those emerging markets, said Sanjay Krishna, director of UNM’s Center for High Technology Materials, which specializes in research with lasers, and infrared sensing and imaging. The CHTM is leading UNM’s involvement in a consortium with universities in four other states to receive federal funding to become an interstate integrated photonics manufacturing hub, which would catalyze public-private partnerships to bring new technologies to market.

“Through joint ventures among academia, industry and the government, we can become a hub to push technology out of the lab,” Krishna said. “New Mexico is in a great position to do that with three national labs in addition to the CHTM.”

A host of local startups have already emerged in recent years to commercialize technologies. CHTM’s research has generated 13 startups in recent years, with licenses to private companies reaping $10 million in patent income.

Krishna himself formed a medical startup in 2009 with his wife, UNM cancer biologist Sanchita Krishna, to use infrared sensing technology from CHTM to develop a camera to measure heat on lesions to detect skin cancer. That would allow doctors to conduct noninvasive diagnostics instead of biopsies. The company, SK Infrared LLC, is housed at UNM’s Science and Technology Park, and employs five full-time and four part-time people.

UNM’s Health Science Center and its Center for Biomedical Engineering have also generated new cytometer, or cell meter, technologies that can radically speed the screening of tissue samples for drug discovery and medical diagnostics. Cytometers use laser systems to scan molecules as they’re pumped with liquids through the machines but, until recently, the process had been very slow.

UNM researchers have created new ways to pump a lot more samples into the cytometers and they’ve developed advanced optical systems to rapidly screen that tissue, with custom software to immediately process it. That’s led to two new Albuquerque-based startups since 2006 to market new superfast cytometers. That includes Intellicyt Corp., a venture-backed firm that now sells its machines worldwide, and the newly formed ETA Diagnostics, which is still fully developing its technology.

The state boasts some major success stories, with companies that formed with technology from UNM, Sandia and other state labs building up their products over years, and then being acquired in lucrative deals with large corporations.

WaveFront Sciences Inc., for example, used Sandia “wavefront” sensor technology – which measures and analyzes laser beams – to develop an advanced ophthalmology examination machine for accurate, non-contact analysis of the human eye. It began marketing the machine to help doctors prescribe surgery, eyeglasses and contact lenses.

That caught the eye of California-based Advanced Medical Optics, the market leader for laser refraction surgery technology. Advanced Medical bought WaveFront in 2007 for $20 million and it now continues to operate in Albuquerque as AMO WaveFront Sciences.

And, last year, a Swedish firm paid more than $60 million for Lumidigm Inc., which used technology from UNM and Sandia that uses a flash of light to create three-dimensional fingerprints for biometric identification. That same technology has also been adapted for technologies now being marketed by two other companies – TruTouch Technologies to measure the level of alcohol or drugs in a person’s bloodstream and VeraLight for noninvasive diagnosis of diabetes.

The concentration of scientific knowledge and expertise here has created a unique ecosystem that favors new optics and photonics companies. More scientists are taking the entrepreneurial leap to pursue business endeavors, taking advantage of the local talent pool to staff their companies, and of the high-tech laboratory resources and equipment available here.

Stephen Krasulick, president and CEO of Skorpios Technologies – an Albuquerque-based startup that has created a breakthrough process to merge silicon with optical chips to lower the cost of communications technology – said New Mexico provides the ideal landscape for his company.

“We’re here because of the talent pool and physical resources available to us,” Krasulick said. “If you wanted to do a software startup, you’d probably find deeper pools of talent in the Silicon Valley, but here there’s a critical mass of hardware semiconductor processing talent. It’s one of the few places in the country with that concentration of expertise.”

And New Mexico has, as yet, barely scraped the surface in terms of tapping into potentially marketable technology at UNM and the labs, said Jim McNally, chair of the Mew Mexico Optics Association.

Optics and photonics discoveries account for 33 percent of the nearly 1,600 patents awarded to New Mexico researchers and inventors in the past five years, yet those technologies contribute only 8 percent of the state’s manufacturing revenues, according to a new study by the Optics Association.

“That suggests that much of the technology is still trapped in research labs, or not being fully used in the state’s commercial sector,” McNally said.

NM companies find robust niche in photonics

Homegrown New Mexico engineering firms have grown from tiny startups into local manufacturing powerhouses with hundreds of employees and tens of millions in revenue thanks to the exploding optics and photonics industry.

Nearly 100 companies are now operating in New Mexico, most in Bernalillo County, according to the New Mexico Optics Association, which released its first comprehensive study of the local industry in February.

By and large, small companies with fewer than 10 employees and less than $10 million in revenue dominate the landscape, offering specialty components and products for larger system integrators. Many machining and welding shops also provide products and services.

But the industry includes a broad mix of midsized firms with between $10 million and $100 million in revenue, and anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of employees. And, with the exception of a few national behemoths, such as Boeing and Raytheon, most of those midsized firms were launched and grown by New Mexicans.

Applied Technology Associates, for example, grew from a small firm with about $5 million in annual revenue in the 1990s to $45 million today and 220 employees, thanks largely to contracts with the Air Force Research Laboratory, which accounts for about 60 percent of ATA’s work. The Albuquerque company makes precision measurement, sensing and control technology for things like laser communications and satellite imaging systems.

In recent years, ATA has diversified its customer base to include more federal agencies, such as NASA, which is using ATA’s custom-made platform stabilization tools to enable near- and deep-space laser communications, said Jim McNally, ATA director of strategic development and chair of the NM Optics Association. NASA uses the platform to precisely point and stabilize laser beams to reduce interference and increase the quality of space-based communications.

“A radio beam from the moon to Earth would be bigger than the state of New Mexico when it reached Earth,” McNally said. “With our laser beam technology, we’ve stabilized that down to three football fields.”

A number of homegrown New Mexico companies have also been purchased by national firms in some of the state’s biggest acquisition deals to date. In 2011, IDEX Corp. of Illinois closed on a $400 million acquisition of CVI Melles Griot, an Albuquerque-based firm that started from scratch in the 1970s to make components and systems for lasers and other optics tools. It grew into an international supplier with $200 million in revenue and sales in 30 nations before the IDEX acquisition.

That same year, Raytheon bought Ktech Corp. for an undisclosed price. Ktech, located at the Sandia Science and Technology Park, specializes in directed energy and pulsed power for microwave and laser defense systems. It reached $63 million in revenue and more than 300 employees before the Raytheon acquisition.

Last year, a New York-based private equity firm paid $150 million for the solar space division of Emcore Corp., which makes semiconductor-based components and subsystems for both fiber optics and solar markets. In 2012, Japan’s Sumitomo Electric Device Innovations USA also bought a subdivision of Emcore’s fiber optics business for $17 million.

And, in early 2014, a Swedish firm paid more than $60 million to acquire Lumidigm Inc., which used technology from the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories to develop a biometric identification device that uses a flash of light to create three dimensional fingerprints.

All of those companies continue to operate in Albuquerque under their new owners.

Meanwhile, since 2010, Boeing has centered all of its company-wide directed energy work in Albuquerque, where it’s helping to develop laser defense systems and optics tools for space vehicles. As of year-end 2013, Boeing’s locally based Directed Energy Systems division employed 320 people, said Boeing spokeswoman Queena Jones.

Source: Albuquerque Journal

For more information, contact:

Denise Bissell