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NM companies find robust niche in photonics

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — 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.

Tom Tichy works in a lab at Applied Technology Associates. The Albuquerque company now has 220 employees.

Tom Tichy works in a lab at Applied Technology Associates. The Albuquerque company now has 220 employees.

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.

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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.

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