An effort to grow the “Optics Valley” brand in Tucson and across Arizona has received a huge boost with a half-million-dollar federal contract to promote the growth and formation of optics companies in the region.
Strategy1, a Tucson business consultancy, announced it was awarded a Small Business Administration contract worth $500,000 this year to work with a statewide optics industry group to help existing optics firms grow, promote the formation of new optics and photonics companies and boost the visibility of the $3 billion statewide industry.
The contract — which includes four additional option years at the same annual funding level — was one of seven awarded late last year under the SBA’s Regional Innovation Clusters program, which funds efforts to grow and develop specific industries in particular regions.
In 2016, the Arizona Technology Council signed a collaborative agreement with the Arizona Optics Industry Association to create the Optics Valley Committee under the council, essentially replacing the longtime optics cluster.
The committee’s stated mission is to “catalyze, convene and connect” optics, photonics, astronomy and supporting businesses across the state.
Strategy1 is a Tech Council member, and president and co-founder John Dennis chairs the Optics Valley Committee.
Dennis is a business and marketing specialist who worked with Silicon Valley tech startups before moving to Tucson in 2008 and launching Strategy1 in 2011.
He said the committee made its proposal with the explicit support of the Tech Council, Pima Community College and the University of Arizona’s Tech Launch Arizona and Tech Parks Arizona.
Dennis said the SBA contract will provide a huge boost to the optics group’s ability to recruit members and grow its programs and influence.
“We’ve worked hard over the past couple of years to really rebuild the optics cluster, and this is some recognition and is helping us go further,” he said.
Major initiatives proposed by the Optics Valley Committee include workforce development programs, direct mentoring and coaching and professional programs for existing companies.
“Workforce development is a huge issue there — there’s a worldwide shortage of talent in the optics arena,” Dennis said.
The optics committee, which has about 75 members mostly based in Tucson, also plans to promote new entrepreneurial companies by supporting existing incubator programs and by providing industry-focused assessments and education, he said.
Other Tucson-based committee members include AGM Container Controls, 4D Technology Corp., Arizona Optical Systems, Optical Support Inc., Edmund Optics and InterOptics LLC.
The panel also plans to increase the visibility of the optics industry with a community marketing program and participation in key industry conferences and trade shows.
“We are dedicated to making the Optics Valley Committee the centerpiece of an integrated, mutually supportive ecosystem that includes academics, optics companies and support services,” Tech Council President and CEO Steve Zylstra said.
Other support will come from the UA, especially its College of Optical Sciences, BIO5 Institute and Steward Observatory.
“We want to work with Tech Launch Arizona and the College of Optical Sciences to build a cohort that works through their programs, that we can add our mentorship and coaching to, as an additional resource to make them even more successful,” he said.
Organizations including the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Small Business Development Corp., Startup Tucson, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and the Tucson Metro Chamber are expected to provide networking and community support.
“I want to emphasize that we are not planning to try and duplicate any existing programs, we are trying to augment and enhance them,” Dennis said. “You’ve got too many silos, and we’re trying to break down silos.”