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Re-Building a Rust Belt Economy: Photonics in Rochester, New York

With the right ingredients, basic research at the university level can drive regional economic development.

By Jim Russell


Broad Street Bridge in Rochester, New York. (Photo: Andreas F. Borchert/Wikimedia Commons)

For Youngstown, Ohio, September 19, 1977, remains Black Monday. The steel industry died and devastated the Mahoning Valley. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, instead of a bad day, Pittsburgh endured a horrible year. During 1982, manufacturing employment cratered. Compared to Youngstown and Pittsburgh, the economic demise of Rochester, New York, was glacial. What took a day in Youngstown and a year in Pittsburgh played out over decades in Rochester, with the gradual industry irrelevance of Kodak. An annual ritual of reflection, the community stands Janus-faced at the crossroads.

As a Rust Belt city, Rochester has long been exceptionally white collar. It’s a shrinking city without the usual explanation for its diminished stature. Innovative companies (Rochester’s Big Three: Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch + Lomb) demanded an educated workforce that served the region well during the turbulent 1980s. The University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology continue to churn out research and talent that propels the economy. Nonetheless, Rochester seems more Youngstown (stuck in the past, when times were good) than Pittsburgh (a complete makeover).

As a Rust Belt city, Rochester has long been exceptionally white collar. It’s a shrinking city without the usual explanation for its diminished stature.

Last summer, Rochester caught a break. The White House announced a sixth innovation cluster for its Department of Defense-sponsored National Network of Manufacturing Institutes. The focus would be photonics and in the wheelhouse of Kodak’s rich history concerning optical technologies. The past would become prologue as local and state leadership anticipated a jobs boom aligned with emerging industries instead of the Silicon Valleys of yesterday.

A year later, boosters wonder when they will begin to see tangible results. Where is the money? Where are the jobs? Chairman of the New York State Photonics Board, John Maggiore, kicked the can down the road: “Year one, it’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it was a year of planning. Now we’re in a year of action.”

Rochester might have to wait longer than that, perhaps forever. In 1984, Pittsburgh embarked upon a similar journey when the Pentagon established the Software Engineering Institute. About a year into the program, a provost of Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Angel Jordan, presaged the words of Maggiore:

“The SEI is going to attract a number of companies because the state of the art in software is going to be here,” Jordan said. “We’re also going to draw people from other universities with expertise in software. And we’re going to have an Industrial Affiliate Program, under which industries will send their engineers here. I believe that will induce a number of companies to open a branch or a research facility in Pittsburgh.

“I’ll be very disappointed if all this doesn’t start to happen within a year,” he said.

Some three decades later, Jordan may still be disappointed. Pittsburgh didn’t become a center of software development. In 1999, life after steel remained an open question. More recently (2009), the job creation efforts looked like a failure. Rochester might as well be waiting for Godot.

What about that makeover that distinguishes Pittsburgh from Youngstown? It’s real and spectacular, but not in a way Jordan or anyone else envisioned. Between 2000 and 2010–14, the City of Pittsburgh posted the third (behind Jersey City and Washington, D.C.) largest gain in concentration of adults under 35 with a college degree. That’s better than Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Seattle did.

Who or what should get credit for the urban turnaround? With the right ingredients, university basic research can drive regional economic development. Instead of looking at the usual metrics of success (e.g. start-ups, venture capital, and overall job creation), consider that federally funded research generates significant employment and transforms the quality of the workforce. Furthermore, as basic research becomes more applied, firms are attracted to the knowledge. Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University lured Uber to Pittsburgh, instead of the talent moving to San Francisco. As for the SEI, it is now a federal hub for cybersecurity with $1.7 billion in Department of Defense funding over the next 10 years.

There’s more. Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, discusses artificial intelligence research:

“Since 2011, artificial intelligence has become a mainstream industry in its own right,” he said. “Suddenly, Pittsburgh finds itself as one of only five significant cities in the world with massive capital around this. We’re up there with the Bay Area, Boston, Zurich and Beijing.”

The year 2011 is a long time after the mid-1980s, when Pittsburgh was already looking for a return on investment. No one could have anticipated that artificial intelligence would be the next big thing. Photonics research, or something related, could play out in the same fashion. At least Rochester has an iron in the fire.