Optical hotbeds erupt worldwide

TRENDS

BY CAROLYN MATHAS

In an economic climate replete with company failures, consolidations, and dried-up funding, several geographically diverse optoelectronics centers are emerging and beginning to blossom. These areas are putting university, industry, and government efforts-and more important, substantial sums of money-behind optoelectronics as a viable industry centerpiece for the long term. Three such centers are Scotland, Wales, and Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.

Tracing its "optic" roots back to 1890s when optical range finders were first produced in Glasgow, Scotland's optoelectronics industry today boasts more than 60 companies, 800 new high-end jobs, and a commitment to create a large cluster of companies based on R&D knowledge.

"Within the first quarter of 2002, the government of Scotland is creating a hands-on seed fund designed to push companies forward at an appropriate rate," says Chris Gracie, chief executive of the Scottish Optoelectronics Association (SOA). "An average of seven new optoelectronics companies is created annually in Scotland, and the industry employs 5,000 people out of a population of five million. Optoelectronics is slated to be very important to Scotland in the coming years."

Several groups spearhead the optoelectronics effort in Scotland, including the SOA, which gives advice on funding sources, legislation and standardization, national and international market development, industry surveys and statistics, commercialization opportunities, education, and trade fairs. The SOA works hand-in-hand with Scottish Development International, a joint venture between the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise. Its vision is to fully integrate Scotland's international economic development activities.

Scotland's companies include the Crystal Consortium Ltd. (Glasgow), Compound Semiconductor Technologies, Intense Photonics, Kamel ian Ltd., Edinburgh Instruments, Essient, Logitech Ltd., and Nallatech.

Neighboring Wales, with a population of three million, employs 3,600 in the Welsh optoelectronics sector, and sources there expect that number will grow substantially. The Welsh Opto-Electronics Forum is a consortium of companies, university research efforts, users, and support organizations with a mission to develop and make profitable optoelectronics in Wales and internationally.

According to Stuart Irvine, chair of optoelectronics materials chemistry at the University of Wales (Bangor), "Our research base at the University of Wales, the second-largest university in the U.K., performs collaborative research ventures in semiconductors, optics, and optronics. Several companies call Wales home, such as Agilent Technologies, Cogent Defense Systems, IQE, Thales Optics, and Spectrum Technologies."

Technium is a groundbreaking Welsh program created to generate innovation-based businesses in a network of facilities throughout Wales. Its crown jewel is the Optronics Technology and Incubation Centre (OpTIC), a state-of-the-art building that comprises 20-30 incubator units and is scheduled to open in September 2003. OpTIC is located on the "Optronics Coast," near existing optoelectronics companies in North Wales, to provide multinationals, small and medium enterprises, and budding entrepreneurs a way of developing new products and processes and provide access to technology, equipment, expertise, investment funds, and assistance with marketing and intellectual property rights-all under one roof.

Highlighting the importance of academia's involvement in fostering optoelectronics in Wales, "centers of excellence" related to optoelectronics are in place at the University of Wales, Cardiff University, University of Glamorgan, University of Wales (Bangor), and University of Wales (Swansea).

Comprising such cities as Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley shed its smokestack and steel exterior over the past 15 years. Long-term resident AT&T-which first became Lucent Technologies, then recently morphed into Agere Systems-tops an impressive roster of companies dedicated to optoelectronics. Where Agere Systems may represent the area's optoelectronics cornerstone, Agility, CENiX, Circadiant Systems, OptronX, and T-Networks, all in Allentown, and Optium Corp. in Upper Saucon Township, now dot the landscape.

While Scottish and Welsh optoelectronics efforts place academia in the fore, Lehigh Valley focuses primarily on industry and government support. A cluster of companies are now coming into Lehigh Valley to tap the resources of a trained, willing, and able work force. Incentives, tax credits, training programs, and low-interest loans are available for the taking. PPL Economic Development, a branch of PPL Electric Utilities, works closely with companies looking at Lehigh Valley, as does local and state government and the area's economic development agency. Academia, however, is solidly behind the effort. Lehigh University has received a $1-million planning grant for the Center for Optical Technologies. The center will focus on developing optical technologies and applications in partnership with industry leaders, regional startup companies, other Pennsylvania colleges and universities, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

According to Frank Mikus, economic director at PPL Electric utilities, "The valley has changed dramatically; infrastructure and highways have improved. Old industries employing 5,000-10,000 people are gone. Today, there are varied industries and many industrial parks creating a more diverse and vibrant environment. Within an hour or two of the area are New York City, the Jersey Shore, the Pocono Mountains, and Philadelphia, rendering a quality-of-life spectrum that is very broad."

Evidence is available that the area can attract money even in difficult times. Recent company venture funding includes $2 million in debt and equity for CENiX. T-Networks secured $12.5 million, Agility $83 million, and Circadiant Systems more than $10 million-a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that optoelectronics companies, new to Lehigh Valley, have received.

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