Creating Great Jobs Communicating With Light
Fiber optics is a foundation of our modern digital society. Unless a person you are talking with is physically in front of you, almost every communication takes the form of light through a fiber optic cable at some point along its journey. About 500,000,000 kilometers of fiber optic cable are produced annually, enough to wrap around the Earth's circumference 12,500 times. Beginning in May 2021, the United Nations International Year of Glass promoted the scientific, economic, and cultural roles of glass. Academic articles were highlighted that “have played historically critical roles in advancing glass science and technology and are setting future directions for the field.” Dr. John Ballato, the J. E. Sirrine Endowed Chair in Optical Fiber at Clemson University, is the lead author on two of the five “optical fiber and photonics” papers out of the hundreds of articles on this topic dating back to the 1970s when optical fibers were in their infancy.
Described below is how an Innovation Collaboration Agreement (ICA) can be crafted around this opportunity using the Great Jobs Through Innovation Excellence Act (Great Jobs) Innovation Ecosystem Framework (click for a more detailed graphic).
Forty faculty are members of the Clemson Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET) based in Anderson, SC. Fiber optic cable used in telecommunications is typically a commodity product, but high-value specialty optical fibers are used in areas like defense and sensing. Making and studying new advanced fibers at a specialty industry scale is very expensive given the necessary infrastructure, so very few universities globally do it. COMSET is one of the few academic centers worldwide and the only one in the US with industry-grade capabilities for making optical fiber. COMSET's vision is to be vertically integrated so that a prototype laser system can be built all the way from picking the atoms to controlling beams in the atmosphere at scale.
Market Pull Innovation and Commercialization
COMSET illustrates one of the great opportunities of Great Jobs. The Master's and Ph.D. graduates of many academic research programs in SC leave the state to find a job. Great Jobs needs to help provide their best career opportunity in SC.
Nufern located in East Granby, CT is a subsidiary of Coherent, a leading global supplier of lasers and photonics technology. Clemson has at least ten graduates working for Nufren to the point Clemson calls them “Clemson North” and they call Clemson “Nufern South.”
Great Jobs will fund ICAs based on market pull innovation. Coherent would define a problem that COMSET designs an academic research project to solve. Great Jobs would fund up to $10 million in COMSET research to solve this problem, increasing the academic research capacity and pipeline of graduating students in the state. Coherent would match the state's investment perhaps by building an innovation center on the same campus as COMSET in Anderson. Coherent leverages its investment in an innovation important to the company with state resources. While students are in school, they physically move regularly between the COMSET Center and the Coherent Center, building industry relationships while they are in school. When students graduate it is natural for many of them to be hired by Coherent in its Anderson innovation center to continue the commercialization of their innovations.
An ICA must include a lead economic development agency, which might be Anderson County Economic Development, to ensure that other appropriate state incentives are available for Coherent to open and grow its innovation center. The Upstate Alliance may also be a party to the RCA to identify other companies, including others with COMSET graduates, that may have an interest in using Great Jobs funding to develop a similar relationship with COMSET.
Commercialization and Workforce Development
As the Coherent Center grows, the company will require technically skilled individuals in its operations. The ICA must also have a lead technical college, in this case perhaps Trident Technical College, to ensure training for a skilled workforce is available.
The RCA must have a component to engage K-12 teachers and students to inspire the next generation to pursue careers in creating the future of communications. The ICA may include SC Coalition for Mathematics and Science at Clemson to design and implement this outreach.