June 30, 2014—Shining a light on Tucson’s Optics Valley

BY: Alaina G. Levine
June 2014

A 1964 initiative to boost the number of optical scientists in the US has spawned hundreds of companies.

Robert Breault is 74 years old, a graduate of the University of Arizona (UA) College of Optical Sciences (OSC), and a successful entrepreneur. He estimates that his company, Breault Research Organization (BRO), a multimillion-dollar optical software and engineering services firm based in Tucson, was the first spin-off from the college in 1979.

“I started with $200, three kids, and a wife, and no experience in the field,” he recalls. “I have never worked for any other company in my life.”

Today BRO has 29 employees, many of whom have advanced degrees in optics and physics, and operates in 37 countries. It is divided into three divisions, which focus on optical software, engineering services, and optics training.

The company’s core technology is based on Breault’s own pioneering work in stray-light analysis and suppression, which is essentially unwanted light in an optical system, explains Kevin Garcia, chief technology officer of BRO. “Bob started off doing some high-profile projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope and was able to improve the performance of its signal-to-noise ratio by something like a factor of 100 000 to 1, a pretty significant achievement at the time.”

BRO makes the APEX add-on for SolidWorks, a widely used tool for computer-aided design. Among APEX's features is the ability to model arrays of identical optical elements. CREDIT: BRO

BRO makes the APEX add-on for SolidWorks, a widely used tool for computer-aided design. Among APEX’s features is the ability to model arrays of identical optical elements. CREDIT: BRO

Breault could carry out such projects thanks to a software program he had developed to conduct and solve stray-light analysis. From that program, a consultancy and a company soon blossomed.

As BRO added employees, Breault and his team rolled out another software program, one based on ray tracing to simulate the propagation of light. Early clients, including government laboratories and agencies, appreciated how the software helped improve the optical performance of their systems. No commercially available software could do the same thing, notes Garcia. Sensing a business opportunity, BRO began licensing the software and providing training on its usage.

BRO’s optical software still serves as the core of its business. As more and more everyday devices have a need to reduce stray light, for example, such as in cell phone cameras, BRO’s software helps optical designers and engineers to develop and prototype their systems.

The engineering services division is also very busy. “Many times companies will come to us and optics is not their core competency,” says Garcia. BRO serves as an optical engineering consulting firm and helps client companies in the design, analysis, prototyping, and manufacturing of optical systems from start to finish and anywhere in between. Its projects have ranged from designing the optics for an electric motor scooter to upgrading the landing lighting systems on US Navy aircraft carriers.

Optics Valley

Breault’s entry into the ecosystem of entrepreneurship wasn’t a fluke. In fact, his success and innovative spirit mirrors the very DNA of the program from which he graduated. Optical Sciences at the UA has always been tied to business and enterprise. As a result, a vibrant optics industry sprung up in the region.

Indeed, Tucson, where the UA is located, was dubbed “Optics Valley” by an article in BusinessWeek in 1992—and with good reason. The small city’s optics and nanotechnology sectors account for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of high-income jobs. According to Tom Koch, dean of OSC, there have been at least 32 first-generation spin-offs (by people affiliated with OSC, including faculty, students, and alumni) and at least 11 second-generation companies: spin-offs from the spin-offs.

“It’s a natural and valuable function of a university research enterprise to fan and fuel economic development and get our technology out there—not just have it be papers,” says Koch, who spent much of his career in private-sector R&D leadership positions with organizations such as Lucent Technologies before joining the college in 2012.

It is hard to count the total number of optics companies in the region. Whereas many firms engage in optics-related activities, such as optical design and assembly or laser and mirror manufacture, others may identify themselves as software companies but in fact serve the optics sector. The Arizona Optics Industry Association (AOIA), the trade association that serves the industry throughout the state, comprises more than 300 member companies and organizations involved in some aspect of optics or optical engineering.

But a January 2008 report, prepared for the AOIA by the UA Office of Economic and Policy Analysis, paints a slightly different picture. Using data aggregated from 92 self-identified optics and nanotechnology companies statewide, the report notes

  • • The sector accounts for more than 25 000 employees, with an average of 25 people per firm.
  • • Total revenue of those industries is just over $2.3 billion, with average revenue of over $45 million per firm.
  • • Small- and medium-sized companies have a total revenue of approximately $80 million, with an average of $1.7 million per firm.
  • • About 68% of the companies are in Pima County (where Tucson is located), and 28% are in Maricopa County (the Phoenix valley).
  • • Many firms have been established for a long time, with 46% having been in operation more than 10 years.

The report estimated that from 1998 to 2008 the Arizona photonics sector grew by a factor of 10.

Recently, the college joined the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), a collaborative alliance among US industry, academia, and government that seeks to raise awareness of photonics and the impact of photonics on our everyday lives; increase cooperation and coordination to advance photonics-driven fields; and drive US funding and investment in areas of photonics critical to maintaining US economic competitiveness and national security.

An NPI press release notes that “Southern Arizona has a particular strength in precision optical components and lenses, one of the fastest growing segments of the industry at 16 percent per year, and Arizona’s employment in this sector has more than doubled in the new millennium while other regions of the country have remained constant or seen sharp declines. Other areas of strength or opportunity in Arizona include photovoltaics, optical communications and biomedical imaging and instrumentation.”

Let there be light

How did optics get its start in Tucson? Formerly known as the Optical Sciences Center, the OSC was launched in 1964 by astronomer and head of the UA Steward Observatory, Aden Meinel. The center’s original directive was to combat the dearth of trained optical scientists in the US, which in the 1960s was viewed as a national crisis.

To meet that directive, Meinel collaborated with the US Air Force Institute of Technology and the Optical Society of America to write a proposal for the center. Financed by a joint lease-purchase agreement between the UA Foundation and the air force, the partnership provided $5.25 million in research funding and building mortgage payments over a five-year period. Meinel became its first director.

It’s no coincidence that an astronomer helped birth the center. Optics and astronomy have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship in Southern Arizona, as optical innovations have been spearheaded and companies have launched to meet the needs of the astronomy community. “The precursor to optics in general is the astronomy community, and they are wonderful people in love with their physics,” says Breault. “They are first and foremost the innovators and early adopters of technology,” which ranges from advanced CCD cameras to massive mirrors used in the world’s most powerful telescopes. “Astronomers are the forecasters of where the optics industry is going to be pushing,” he adds.

The west wing of the Meinel Optical Sciences Building was designed by the Phoenix, Arizona, firm of richärd+bauer. The wing opened in 2006. CREDIT: University of Arizona

The west wing of the Meinel Optical Sciences Building was designed by the Phoenix, Arizona, firm of richärd+bauer. The wing opened in 2006. CREDIT: University of Arizona

OSC itself has been intimately involved in numerous astronomical and planetary science projects, and Koch is hoping to capitalize on this connection and push it even further. “When I got here, I realized there is a culture of making stuff, not just doing experiments and proof of concept,” he notes.

Koch helped merge two teams of engineers and scientists—which have worked side by side on multinational projects, such as telescope mirrors and cameras for various extraterrestrial missions—into one group called Engineering and Technical Services. This new endeavor, which spans OSC and the College of Science, consists of 120 professionals whose expertise includes metrology, measurement, software, electronic control systems, and optoelectronics.

Koch envisions the team’s interests to expand into biomedical and other arenas where optical science problem solving prevails. His college has purchased and upgraded critical tools, such as a diamond turning tool, which “allows [us] to get into micro-optics and airborne optics which could be applied to projects for the military or medical fields,” he says. “One of my goals is to become known as an enterprise that can do real large scale problems, complex system level projects, and be a national go-to partner” for prototype development and other services for outside corporations and research groups. “We have the confidence, people, and tools.”

The UA itself has a strong entrepreneurial contingency, which is aligned across campus. Resources and experts are readily available to assist professors in commercializing their technology. “Optical Sciences has a legacy and continuing track record of being one of the leaders at the university in intellectual property generation,” says Koch. “We put our money where our mouth is.”

In fact, OSC pays part of the salary of a technology-transfer associate who spends half her time at the college assessing licensing deals for optics faculty and students, and helping them navigate intellectual property rules concerning the launching of a company that uses technology generated by the university.

Jim Wyant, who served as director of OSC from 1999 to 2005 and as founding dean (when it transitioned to college status) from 2005 to 2012, is one of Arizona’s most successful optics entrepreneurs. The founder of multiple companies, he currently serves as chairman of 4D Technology, which he helped launch in 2002.

The company designs and manufactures laser interferometers, surface roughness profilers, and interferometry accessories for applications in aerospace, astronomy, and optical fabrication, as well as for semiconductors and data storage. “The UA has done everything it can to help me,” he states, noting that when he founded his first company, WYKO, he was allowed to keep his tenure while spending only 20% of his time at the institution.

UA’s OSC alumni have remained loyal to the university and to the scholarship of optics. Wyant estimates that 25–30% of alumni remain in Arizona. Local firms continue to hire graduates. According to US Representative Ron Barber (D-AZ) in Inside Tucson Business, the college educates more students in optics than any other institution in the US. Given that fact, there is every reason to believe that the college will not stray from its lighted entrepreneurial path.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Networking for Nerds, her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers, will be published by Wiley later this year. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.

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