Boulder's photonics industry

From the development of the barcode scanner to the high-resolution cameras in our mobile devices, photonics technology is all around us.

Optical components and subsystems permeate nearly all technology fields, including aerospace, medicine, telecommunications, construction, and entertainment. And beyond their daily applications, lasers are uniquely suited to investigate the mysteries of the universe, improve communications, and spawn new consumer products. Soon, they will even change the way computers operate. This is the realm of the photonics industry, a discipline that is alive and well here in Boulder.

What is photonics technology? Photonics is the branch of science that concerns itself with the generation, detection, and manipulation of light. It is practiced at universities such as CU Boulder, in the rooms of certain federally funded laboratories like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and within the R&D programs at private companies, such as Particle Measurements Systems and Research Electro-Optics here in Boulder. Photonics is technically not considered an industry cluster, but rather an enabling discipline that feeds a great many industries.

Boulder’s unique positioning in the photonics industry

The Colorado Photonics Industry Association (CPIA) reports that over 250 photonics companies operate in the state. Moreover, more than 50% of them are involved in manufacturing. While these might not seem to be overly impressive figures, consider that Boulder, and Colorado in general, is one of only a handful of regions in the U.S. where there is a high photonics concentration.  The International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) tracks these epicenters closely. They report that Boulder joins the ranks of such cities as Rochester, NY, Tucson, AZ, and Orlando, FL as having above average photonics footprints. Further, the one notable commonality in these regions is the presence of a top tier research university that maintains a strong optical physics program. 

Boulder’s commitment to both workforce and small business development in the photonics industry sets us apart from other such epicenters. Front Range Community College, via its Center for Integrated Manufacturing, offers a two-semester program leading to a certificate in optics technology that “prepares students for entry-level positions in the optics manufacturing industry” as the demand for skilled optical technicians grows. Further, state-based initiatives at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) provide funding opportunities for apprenticeships and internships. Lastly, the Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) has traditionally supported photonics businesses through their Advanced Industry grant program.

The power of quantum computing

The photonics industry is now poised to make an even greater impact through quantum computing. Many laud the arrival of quantum computing as a breakthrough moment where a variety of capabilities have aligned. This alignment will allow scientists and engineers to construct more powerful computers to address large and challenging problems in the areas of climate change, renewable energy, navigation, cybersecurity and fundamental scientific research.  

At their core, certain quantum computers are photonics devices. Individual atoms are optically “trapped,” manipulated, and placed in a state where they can interact with other atoms in a unique “quantum” manner. The University of Colorado Boulder’s  CUBit Quantum Initiative program strives to connect many disciplines, both internal and external to the university, to advance this new form of computing. Given the density of expertise here in Boulder, it is no wonder that companies such as Google, IBM, and Honeywell have recognized our region as a go-to location in the world for quantum knowhow. 

Perhaps the emergence of the Boulder-based company Cold Quanta tells this story best. Decades of Nobel prize-worthy research conducted at both CU Boulder and NIST ultimately led to the commercialization of quantum capabilities. Founded in 2007, and led by an experienced local entrepreneur and developer of successful business enterprises, Dan Caruso, the company has leveraged local resources and federal funding to grow into a world leader in the field. 

Photonics – creating a happier, more productive world

I find it hard to mention an industry that does not, at some point, tap into the photonics discipline. Our cars and computers, cell phones and sunglasses, and our gadgets and gizmos remind us daily that we depend on optics and optical technology to be happy, safe, and productive. Closer to home, both the companies and resources we celebrate locally further remind us that Boulder’s photonics industry shines bright.

By Scott Sternberg, Executive Director of the Boulder Economic Council