Cluster Summit highlights need to maintain momentum

March 1, 2008
SAN JOSE, CA—The culmination of several months of planning, the Photonics Cluster Summit at the Fairmont hotel on Wednesday, January 23rd during Photonics West began with an initial idea by Jim Pearson, acting executive director of the Florida Photonics Cluster (FPC;, and this year’s FPC president, Alex Fong.

SAN JOSE, CA—The culmination of several months of planning, the Photonics Cluster Summit at the Fairmont hotel on Wednesday, January 23rd during Photonics West began with an initial idea by Jim Pearson, acting executive director of the Florida Photonics Cluster (FPC;, and this year’s FPC president, Alex Fong. “Although the Florida Photonics Cluster organizes local events within the state of Florida, we recognized that BiOS/Photonics West is a terrific opportunity to meet since it has become the de facto event where the entire industry converges,” said Fong. “And because part of the Florida cluster’s charter is to strengthen liaisons between itself and other clusters and technical societies, we decided to expand our initial idea of a small gathering during Photonics West into a ‘Photonics Cluster Summit’ and asked leaders from other clusters in the U.S. if they were interested in participating.”

Pearson, a past SPIE president, suggested the involvement of SPIE in the event as it had been active in promoting Cluster activities in the past. Together with Pearson and Fong, Peter Hallett from SPIE, Bob Breault from the Arizona Optics Industry Association (AOIA), Tom Battley from the Rochester New York Regional Photonics Cluster (RRPC), and Barbara Ihde from the Colorado Photonics Industry Association (CPIA) began to define their objectives and work through the logistics of the meeting.

“The group came to a consensus that it wanted to create the opportunity not only for dialogue between these groups, but also allow Cluster leaders to learn from one another,” said Fong. “We wanted SPIE involved because of the central role they play with respect to the industry and their international reach—extremely important in assuring we had clusters from outside the U.S. in attendance. Peter took on a central role in channeling and catalyzing our many ideas for the summit and having SPIE host the event as a complement to BiOS/Photonics West, providing the event with the profile it deserved.”

I’ve been to a number of events at trade shows, but this was the first “working” event that I can remember in quite a while. Hallett took the floor and asked the attendees to form small groups and answer two questions: (1) What is working within your cluster; and (2) What isn’t working?

Regarding what is working within photonics clusters (according to the assembled crowd of about 70 people), an overwhelming consensus emerged that clusters are able to attract new members, and benefit from having an influential leader who is able to rally the members to advance the goals of a cluster. Unfortunately, what isn’t working within clusters is a much longer list.

In the notes compiled by Peter Hallett from the Photonics Cluster Summit, two of the biggest challenges facing clusters were listed as finding funding sources, and maintaining the momentum of current membership. To find funding, solutions included forming strong relationships with universities and to win SBIR contracts via relationships with large industry players. And to maintain momentum within a cluster, groups at the Summit listed several solutions including a) to define the value of the cluster to members, b) provide opportunities for networking, c) create a directory of members, d) utilize the Internet to connect members that are separated by geographic distance, e) survey membership so that the cluster can stay focused on what is important to members, f) focus on maintaining strong leadership, g) network with other clusters and internationally, and h) to find ways to foster partnerships with universities and industry.

“Getting people to join is one thing, but getting their time is another,” said Fong. “The Florida Photonics Cluster, for example, has had tremendous growth over the past two years but the same small group of people remains the most active and involved.” Fong continued, “We offer a multitude of opportunities to promote our members products and capabilities as well as a chance to collaborate with other firms in pursuing opportunities that might be out any single company’s scope. It’s getting people to see that which is the big challenge.”

The FPC was incorporated in 1995 as the Florida Electro-Optics Industry Association by William C. Schwartz. Schwartz was a real giant in the industry having been a serial entrepreneur in photonics and lobbying for the creation of the University Central Florida’s Center for Research in Electro-optics and Lasers (CREOL) which eventually became one of the country’s first Colleges of Optics. Since these early days under strong leadership, the FPC has not had difficulty maintaining momentum for its members. And current president Alex Fong has every intention of keeping that momentum going. “Lack of human resources and intellectual capital are a huge problem in the photonics industry and that is public-policy driven and ties into legislation on education and immigration,” said Fong. “Clusters allow the rational voice of photonics firms to be heard amongst policy makers whose bills on these critical topics can either help or hinder their efforts. Photonics represents the bedrock of present future technological fixtures in our lives, in everything from entertainment to health care. We need to ensure that we support its development as ultimately all of this has an impact in determining our future and the quality of our lives.”

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