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.