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WATCH: The politics of photonics


We know what photonics is — it's the science and application of particles of light, called photons.

And we know what it does — photonics technology makes lasers and LEDs, and it is being integrated into microchips and advancing imaging systems.

But the creation of a photonics institute in Rochester is actually part of a national push toward investing in manufacturing jobs.

Back in 2014, President Barack Obama announced a big initiative in advanced manufacturing.

"For generations of Americans, manufacturing was the ticket to a good middle-class life. We made stuff. And the stuff we made — like steel and cars and planes — made us the economic leader of the world," the president said.

"But the economy has changed. So if we want to attract more good manufacturing jobs to America, we've got to make sure we're on the cutting edge of new manufacturing techniques and technologies."

Obama called for the creation of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, which would be responsible for establishing dozens of institutes over the next 10 years, all working on high-tech manufacturing.

Rochester was chosen as the location of one such institute, to be called the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics, or AIM Photonics.

Vice President Joe Biden was among the many federal, state and local officials who gathered for the fanfare-filled announcement last July.

“Light now brings the news of the universe through fiber-optic cable to every single corner and part of the globe. And it’s called photonics. The science of using the smallest waves of light to approach extraordinary things and accomplish extraordinary things,” said Biden.

Rochester would receive $110 million from the Department of Defense, $250 million from the state, along with private dollars, bringing the total investment to over $600 million.

Biden said the institute would act as a central hub and "give Rochester optics businesses the space and the capacity they need to generate the next-generation breakthroughs and secure American leadership in the manufacturing of integrated photonics."

But in the aftermath of that announcement, there was some public disagreement over where the photonics hub would be headquartered.

The back-and-forth squabble had one camp pushing for the Sibley Building and another pulling for Legacy Tower, the former Bausch + Lomb building.

A month after the initial announcement, SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, a partner in the initiative, issued a news release saying that the headquarters would be at Legacy Tower. This angered State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, D-Irondequoit, who released this statement:

"The last time I checked, SUNY Polytechnic is a state institution. State money is appropriated by the State Legislature and frankly, I resent the decision to try to reach into Rochester and tell us where they will site facilities."

Ultimately, discussions that involved Gov. Andrew Cuomo were held, leading to a final agreement on the headquarters — Legacy Tower won out — and the political infighting subsided, for the most part.

"History will forget any squabbles anybody had," Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, said.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, was one of the strongest supporters of bringing the hub to Rochester. She’s looking beyond the rough start to the future.

"History will forget any squabbles anybody had. What history wants to know is that we made a difference and we made a change."

Bob Duffy, the former lieutenant governor who now is the president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

"Some of the back and forth that’s probably been played out publicly — it’s much more ado about nothing."

Duffy has since been named the chair of the AIM Photonics Leadership Council — a group put in place to help get everyone on the same page.

"Really, the team is working seamlessly together ... great participation, great support for each other and I feel great about where it’s going."

There has been progress. In the middle of March, the governor came to Rochester to announce that two photonics-related companies — Avogy and Photonica — would be coming to Canal Ponds and Eastman Business Park, with the promise of 1,400 jobs.

Cuomo says this is just the start of potential job and economic growth in Rochester, as long as political leaders continue to work together.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a visit to Rochester in mid-March, noted: "Unified works. Teams work. Single-focus, everybody identifying the goal works. That is up to you."

"The economy doesn’t work within a city, within a county. It works as the region,” Cuomo said. “The academic universities, together with the businessmen, together with the politicians: all together. Unified works. Teams work. Single-focus, everybody identifying the goal works. That is up to you. It is all there for you to do.”

This is the second in a three-part series. In the next part, we'll look at the economic impact that Rochester's photonics institute could have on the region.

Veronica Volk is a Reporter/Producer for WXXI News. She comes from WFUV Public Radio, where she began her broadcasting career as a reporter covering the Bronx, and the greater New York City area. She later became the Senior Producer of WFUV’s weekly public affairs show, Cityscape. Originally from Ocean County, New Jersey, Veronica got her B.A. in Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, concentrating on Media, Culture, and Society.
Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She most often tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York as part of a journalism collaborative, and is a fill-in host and regular contributor to WXXI-TV's weekly news magazine program, Need To Know.
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