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Optics, photonics players say NM can be global leader

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico lost its bid this year to become a federally-backed “center of excellence” for optics and photonics, but local officials, researchers and private investors say momentum is still building to turn the state into a global leader in light-based technologies.

That momentum shone brightly Friday at a University of New Mexico conference on optics and photonics attended by some 500 people. UNM organized the event to strengthen public-private collaboration in the development and commercialization of new technologies following its failure to win federal funding for an integrated photonics manufacturing hub that would have included UNM and universities in three other states.

At the conference, a 12-member panel of academics, national laboratory scientists, private investors and state and local officials discussed the opportunities for capitalizing on the national attention generated by UNM’s participation in the federal competition.

The state is now recognized as an optics and photonics leader, said Deirdre Firth, City of Albuquerque deputy director for economic development. That includes breakthroughs in everything from superfast laser communications and defense systems to light-based medical diagnostics and treatment.

Given New Mexico’s capabilities, the state could promote itself as an industry hub independent of the federal government.

“We should just declare ourselves as a ‘center of excellence’ and then seek funding,” Firth said. “We need to emphasize that New Mexico is recognized as a leader nationally and that companies look to us as a preferred location.”

Panelists said public-private partnerships are critical for businesses to commercialize new technologies at New Mexico’s universities and national labs.

Such partnerships in other countries are putting U.S. businesses at a disadvantage, said Brad Clevenger, president and CEO of SolAero Technologies in Albuquerque.

“Our strongest competition is coming from Europe, where public-private partnerships help companies leverage research and development to get products to market faster,” Clevenger said.

New Mexico also needs a comprehensive strategy to build the industry, said Patricia Knighten, director of the state Office of Science and Technology.

“We need to build a road map with a shared vision of our role in the global optics and photonics supply chain,” Knighten said.

A new federal grant could help with that. The U.S. Department of Defense recently approved about $1.2 million for New Mexico to study businesses impacted by changes in defense spending, including new priorities in optics and photonics research. The New Mexico Technology Research Collaborative also kicked in $400,000 for the initiative, Knighten said.

Sanjay Krishna, head of UNM’s Center for High Technology Materials, said New Mexico should create a public-private center for applied photonics.

“We don’t need external validation,” Krishna told the Journal. “We just need to get it going and build on the synergy that’s already emerging here.”

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