News

September 30, 2012

Manufacturing using tiniest of materials holds economic promise for Rochester region

By: Tom Tobin

Source: Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

The New York state Thruway is a 570-mile ribbon of asphalt that is a general topic of conversation mostly for the tolls it charges.

But in economic terms, the Thruway is New York’s primary commercial artery, linking east to west and north to south. Without it, western New York’s and the Rochester region’s ties to Albany and the Hudson Valley would be far more tenuous.

That matters in many respects. But it matters especially now in connecting this region to an astonishing, even historic, spurt of high-tech growth in the Albany area, built primarily on the promise of nanotechnology to transform the worlds of communication, energy, manufacturing, transportation and other sectors.

“Nanoscale” is a word thrown around a lot these days. President Barack Obama drops it into speeches about the future economy. It has come to represent far-reaching science that has come crashing into ordinary lives much as computers did 40 years ago.

Futurists transmit the message often. Ray Kurzwell, a scientist and advocate of solar power, said that computer microprocessing speed doubles every year and a half or so. “Why wouldn’t other microtechnologies develop at the same rate or faster?” he asked.

Nanotech is microtechnology at the extreme. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A mere 14 nanometers is the width of 40 atoms. Nanoprocessing is the manipulation of atoms and molecules to do an array of human tasks and services on a level no human eye will ever see unaided.

Why is this important? Because the smaller something is, the less energy it expends, the easier it can be stored and communicated in large numbers, the more difficult it is to breach.

Fifty years ago, computers were the size of a closet. Now, much better ones are the size of a postage stamp.

Size matters, and the smaller the better. Nano-sized optical sensors are used in smartphones. Every time an iPhone or Droid screen flips from vertical to horizontal, a nano-level gyro is doing the work.

When U.S. soldiers in Iraq needed a better way to detect roadside bombs as they drove the back roads, sensors using nanotechnology were developed.

In health care, tiny embedded sensors are being developed to detect changes within the body long before a seizure occurs or an illness worsens.

It’s an amazingly rich and diverse technological field.

California’s Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 corridor won the personal computer race. But the chase for nanotech gold is by no means settled. And the Rochester region is in the thick of it.

Region's strengths

The reasons that upstate is a good match for the burgeoning nanotech field are the same reasons that such local business advocates as Mark Peterson, CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise, and Sandy Parker, CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance, have pitched for years. They and other advocates cite the student and faculty intellectual power emerging from research centers like Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester.

They extoll the engineering skills that built Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch + Lomb over the decades. And they point to upstate’s ready access to fresh water, low-cost hydropower and an affordable lifestyle.

“We have what these companies want, including sites for large-scale development, university resources and a sizable population,” said Steve Hyde, president and CEO of the Genesee County Economic Development Center.

For years, Hyde has been the leading regional voice behind development of a 1,243-acre site in Genesee County for high-tech companies seeking large, so-called shovel-ready locations for advanced manufacturing plants. The project is called STAMP, an acronym for Science Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, and, until recently it has been a pretty tough sell.

Now, it’s a priority project of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, having been so designated earlier this month. It has gone from vague promise to front-runner.

Why?

Cue nanotech. And the Thruway, which is a mere five miles from the STAMP site. And, to a certain degree, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo has advocated for a “Thruway corridor” of affiliated businesses after seeing the billions in private investment that computer chip powerhouses such as IBM, Intel, Samsung and GlobalFoundries have put into the Albany area, and the explosive development of the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

The goal of these companies is to marry their chip-making research and development skills with the enormous promise of nanoscale engineering. The Albany nanotech enterprise has reached westward and southward to Utica, East Fishkill and Yorktown Heights and to the former Infotonics Center in Canandaigua, now called the Smart System Technology & Commercialization Center.

The affiliation — the STC Center is now part of the Albany nanoscale college — has made all the difference for that facility, which was envisioned as a business incubator melding regional colleges and businesses. It struggled in that role. The new one is a better, more profitable fit.

According to STC officials, the number of scientists, researchers, engineers and other high-tech personnel working at the Canandaigua location has more than doubled since 2010.

With the addition of more private industry partners, project revenue has risen by 46 percent, with total revenue rising by 31 percent per year during that same period.

“The Albany connection has been fantastic, and the STC Center is very compatible with what they’re doing,” said Mike Manikowski, executive director of the Ontario County Office of Economic Development. He said efforts to develop the region’s high-tech capabilities — tied to the skills engendered by the universities and such companies as Kodak — have been ongoing for years.

But nanotechnology, with its broad reach and emerging promise, is the real thing, Manikowski said. “Albany is a world leader in this.” And so Ontario County is going all out to make the most of the STC Center’s economic potential.

There’s a 50-acre site adjacent to the STC Center on Route 332 in Canandaigua that Manikowski said is ready for a manufacturing tenant. The county recently won a $9 million grant from the federal government to expand the runway at the local general aviation airport.

“The idea is to make it able to handle corporate jets,” Manikowski said.

The STC Center is four miles from Exit 44 along Cuomo’s Thruway corridor.

STC Center Chief Executive Paul Tolley, who came out of the Rochester optics industry, found the Infotonics Center to be underperforming. Now, thanks to the center’s nanotech focus and Tolley’s ability to bring in tenants and woo defense contracts, the center has many more corporate suitors than space to accommodate them.

“A critical mass of nanotech infrastructure is being created,” Tolley said. “The governor has led the effort. But it will be here long after he leaves office.”

University role

Alain Kaloyeros, the CEO of Albany’s nanotech college and, with Cuomo, the leading champion of the technology in New York, said the governor’s idea is to create a modern-day Erie Canal, following essentially the same route westward toward Buffalo, substituting nanotech research, development and manufacturing for the barges, mules and hardscrabble workers of centuries past.

“The difference here is that this is driven by the university and the public sector, not the industry,” Kaloyeros said. “The state owns the college and creates the research.” That’s new in innovation economics on this scale, he said.

It’s not yet clear whether this surge in nanotech will spur job creation where it is most needed in New York and nationally — among middle-skills workers, those with high school and some college education.

The Albany nanotech partnership claims it has created more than 13,000 jobs already and expects more as the state jumps full-bore into the race for the next generation of computer chips. If everything pans out, the state expects to add more than 25,000 nanotech jobs statewide within three years, with several thousand of those in the Rochester region.

Yet, out of the local network of four-year colleges and universities, most of the training and education of nanotech workers and clean-room operators central to advanced manufacturing are being done at the community college level.

Finger Lakes Community College in Ontario County has a training program specifically targeted at feeding the STC Center. The classes are small so far, and if nanotech grows at the pace anticipated, the industry may soon exhaust its local supply of skilled workers.

“Now is the time,” said FLCC physics professor Sam Samanta, who is heading an academic program called Instrumentation and Control Technologies geared specifically to preparing people for advanced manufacturing. “The companies will go elsewhere if they can’t find the workers they need.”

Kaloyeros agrees. He’s a cheerleader for all things nanotech but he thinks four-year colleges and universities have to do a better job preparing students for these mid-level jobs.

“We’re building relationships with K-12 and community colleges,” he said. “But more must be done.”