The photonics fight: it's about leadership, not buildings

by and

SUNY Polytechnic should have known better than to pick a fight over the photonics institute. Companies and researchers in the Rochester region helped carve out the multi-disciplinary, high-tech field, and they've remained at the top of it. Local leaders have been fiercely protective of the industry, and they weren't about to let someone from outside the area usurp it or its potential.

And that's exactly what some local leaders say SUNY Polytechnic officials tried to do last night by announcing that they'd selected space in Legacy Tower – the former Bausch + Lomb headquarters downtown – for the institute's administrative, business accelerator, and workforce training operations. And they called out SUNY Polytechnic CEO Alain Kaloyeros, either directly or through implication.

“This dispute is not about office space, it’s about leadership of the photonics center,” said House Representative Louise Slaughter in a statement sent out this afternoon. “The White House created these national centers of innovation and we worked for years to get photonics designated as one of them. The science and the expertise are in Rochester, which is why decisions regarding facilities must also be made in Rochester. I worked for three years to achieve this and we will not be deterred by one man’s ego.”

The DOD is putting up $110 million for the institute, which is supposed to help rapidly advance ultra-cutting-edge technology for use in telecommunications, computing, medical devices, defense systems (of course), and who knows what else. SUNY Research Foundation, SUNY Polytechnic, University of Rochester, and RIT led the winning application for the institute, and that push was backed by $250 million commitments from both the state of New York and photonics industry groups.

From Day 1, the institute meant that a lot of money could be flowing into or through Rochester, and that a lot of research, development, and manufacturing work could be heading to the region, too. That potential is why so many people, from top politicians to parents who simply want their kids to have a future in Rochester, were so excited when the region won. And it creates a tremendous risk of political jockeying, power grabs, and misuse of resources.

That's why, back in December, the governor's office made Kaloyeros and UR President Joel Seligman sign an agreement that laid out the governance structure for the new photonics institute. Under the agreement, the two institutions are supposed to be equals, and a nine-person board is supposed to oversee the institute.

"It has not functioned to date because candidly, Kaloyeros has not been available for discussions with respect to governance or where manufacturing will be located in Rochester, among other things," Seligman said during an interview this morning.

Seligman and Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle say decisions about the institute aren't supposed to be made unilaterally, but as partners. And ideally, the sites should be chosen with the involvement of the regional photonics industry as well as the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, they say.

This is why the Rochester leaders who pushed so hard for the institute are so pissed off at SUNY Polytechnic officials, Kaloyeros in particular. Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle says the decision-making process has been ignored and needs to get back on track. He's so serious about the issue that he says he's willing to use his post to take away SUNY Polytech's funding if its leaders don't fall in line.

"While I'm happy to participate in a process that allows us to work out these differences, we're not going to be pushed aside while someone dictates from Albany what Rochester facilities are going to be used," Morelle said to local media this afternoon.

By the end of the day, Kalyeros and Seligman sent out a joint statement pledging cooperation. But the burden will be on SUNY Polytechnic, which will have to regain the trust of its Rochester partners, all of whom maintain that the location of the photonics institute headquarters is still an open matter.

"Our unprecedented collaboration will be vital to the future of Rochester as we work together to maximize job creation, economic development, and provide vast new opportunities for all New Yorkers," says the statement. "Importantly, we share an unwavering commitment to establishing the business headquarters and technology accelerator/incubator in Downtown Rochester. We will also continue to work together to identify additional facilities in the Finger Lakes region."