Can Rochester become the Silicon Valley of photonics?

Mark Peterson, CEO and president, Greater Rochester Enterprise recently said, “Rochester will be the Silicon Valley of optics, photonics and imaging.” At first glance Peterson’s statement is ambitious — even inspiring. And it’s all but appropriate for a leader who cherishes the role of Rochester region cheerleader. However, it’s an assertion that deserves further examination. In essence, it’s a sound bite that compares the future of the Rochester region to one of the most successful, influential — and sometimes controversial — economies in the world.


Maps of the Rochester region and the San Francisco Bay Area with logos of prominent photonics and tech companies, respectively.


For many residents in the Finger Lakes region, photonics remains the latest buzzword used by media, politicians and other leaders to anchor rhetoric of hope and progress in the community. Carlet Cleare of ABC affiliate 13-WHAM interviewed area resident Angela Mastro who is “excited about it coming to Rochester, because the thought of bringing new jobs to Rochester excites me.” Despite her enthusiasm, Mastro is largely unfamiliar with the optics, photonics and imaging sector. For people like Mastro what does a comparison to Silicon Valley really mean?

Peterson’s claim can be broken down into three distinct parts.

  1. Defining “Rochester” to assess who is most likely to benefit from the expected impact of the area’s newfound focus on photonics.
  2. Comparing the Rochester region’s demographic and socioeconomic makeup to that of Silicon Valley. From the sourcing of capital to issues of diversity and inclusion in the workforce, Silicon Valley offers many lessons for the Rochester region. Assuming photonics accelerates economic activity, successes and challenges from Silicon Valley may help to identify strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities that will accompany future growth in the Rochester region.
  3. Comparing optics, imaging and photonics to Silicon Valley’s leading industries, including software, medical devices, biotech, and semiconductors. While Silicon Valley was built on the growth of semiconductors and computing, its own economy continues to foster transformative changes that advance necessary shifts for continued long-term growth. How can Rochester learn from another region’s approach to global, industry-wide change?

Over the next several weeks, Common Wealth will explore each of these core areas. Each post will include key takeaways and recommendations.

In the spirit of Peterson’s charge to “become the Silicon Valley of optics, photonics and imaging,” this new series intends to inform how such a bold vision can result in both a desirable and sustainable reality for the Rochester and Finger Lakes regions.


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