Arkansas Photonics Industry Alliance to Align Optics Companies

Two optics entrepreneurs are working to unite the state’s photonics manufacturing industry.

The players: Walter Burgess, vice president of sales and engineering at Power Technology Inc. in Alexander, and Kirk Warden, vice president of LaCroix Optical Co. in Batesville. About 18 months ago, the pair set out to create the Arkansas Photonics Industry Alliance, a cluster of all the companies in the state that are opto-electric manufacturers. Such companies build products that involve light and vision, particularly lasers.

“I would generally describe photonics as a marriage of photons and electronics,” Burgess said.

“It goes into all sorts of different equipment,” Warden said.

Power Technology, for example, was founded in 1969 and manufactures laser diodes for several industries. LaCroix, established in 1947 in Chicago, later moved to Batesville and constructs optical glass mainly to be used in microscopes and other products, typically for the medical industry.

“Both Walter and I go to trade shows, and we are involved in our industry,” Warden said. “We see these clusters seem to work in the areas like Rochester, N.Y., Tucson, Ariz., and south Florida. It’s a really good industry, nationwide, and we’d love to see that type of industry grow in the state of Arkansas.”

Warden said the survival of the state’s photonics industry through the recession gave him hope that it could be further bolstered in the state.

“If we can promote this industry within the state, it’s good for the state,” he said. “Maybe another opto-electric manufacturer will move in and create more customers for us. Then you also have the possibility of partnering with some of these companies. The colleges may pick up on it and start developing opto-electric programs, and now you start getting a trained workforce from operators all through engineers.”

Forming the Cluster

Putting together an industrial alliance hasn’t been an easy task, however.

First, the pair identified how companies would qualify for the alliance and chose 11 that fit into their criteria. Burgess estimates their combined revenues total more than $75 million and they employ more than 500 workers.

They are:

  • AGL Lasers, Jacksonville
  • BEI Precision Systems & Space Co. Inc., Maumelle
  • InvoTek Inc., Alma
  • LaCroix Optical Inc., Batesville
  • LaserAim Tools Inc., Little Rock
  • LaserTools Co. Inc., Little Rock
  • Power Technology Co. Inc., Alexander
  • Scan Solutions of North America Inc., Royal
  • Snap-On Tools Co. LLC, Conway
  • Space Photonics Inc., Fayetteville
  • Vivione Biosciences, Pine Bluff

These companies have a wide range of products: BEI builds optical encoders that are used by NASA and the U.S. military. Space Photonics develops laser and fiber optic communications systems, and in June it won a $332,000 contract from the U.S. Department of Defense. Vivione uses photonic tech to detect infectious diseases.

Some of the others build photonics products, but they aren’t the company’s primary revenue source.

“We have a laser-sensing keyboard we make, so we’ve done some work in that area, but it’s a small part of all the things we do,” said Tom Jakobs, president of InvoTek.

But InvoTek qualified for the list because it’s involved in manufacturing photonics, even if it’s a small part of the company’s business.

“What we did is we felt that photonics should be led by industry, and we’re primarily an economic development group that wants to enhance the companies that are here,” Burgess said. “So we looked at who manufactures products here in the state.”

He said there are a few other companies in the state that sell, but do not manufacture, photonics products. There’s an even longer list — around 1,000 companies — that use photonics products, including big names like Verizon, Windstream Corp. and L’Oreal.

Burgess said the cluster will also include many of the colleges and universities in the state, but he said that’s not his first priority. Warden said he wants the cluster to be industry driven.

“We don’t want to be just a purely academic, theoretical group,” Burgess said. “We want to be action-oriented.”

After the list was made, Burgess and Warden attempted to hold the cluster’s first meeting at the Arkansas Small Business & Technology Development Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and the university voiced support, but very few of the companies showed up.

“We have tried to convene some meetings with companies that we’ve listed, but they haven’t been really well-attended,” Burgess said. “We’re in a phase where we’re trying to build membership and build a consensus among which members we should tackle.”

So why the low attendance?

“Geography plays a big role in it,” Burgess said. “A lot of the companies are spread out from Jonesboro to northwest Arkansas. It takes a lot to drive three hours to come to a meeting that’s only a couple hours long. We think that particular issue cropped up in some early meetings. We’re now looking for ways for technology to bring us together.”

But that’s not to say the companies aren’t interested. It’s just a slow process. Nicolas Mayerhoeffer, marketing director at Laser Tools Co. Inc. in Little Rock, for example, thinks cooperation in the industry is a good idea.

“I think that will be perfect,” Mayerhoeffer said. “I think relying on alliances, and I said this to some of our partners in Chicago and Milwaukee, that’s what we need to do. Absolutely.”

Since the first meeting, Burgess and Warden have also begun work on attaining nonprofit status and are preparing a website.

They’ve also reached out to several governmental entities, and have obtained oral support from the office of U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

“The [cluster] is in its infancy, but it has a growing number of very enthusiastic members lending their expertise to lay the foundation for promoting effective growth of the industry in Arkansas,” Griffin said in a letter to the AEDC.

Joe Holmes, director of marketing and communications at the AEDC, said the commission is in favor of the cluster’s formation, and noted that it had put some incentives into attracting photonics companies as part of building out Arkansas’ technology industry.

“When it comes to recruiting these type companies, we are seeking to play to our strengths and pursue any advantage that university research, private company expertise and Arkansas ingenuity might provide us,” Holmes said. “Whether photonics, nanotechnology, agricultural science or logistics, we want to build on the things that firm up our tech and research infrastructure.”

In particular, the AEDC supplied Space Photonics Inc. of Fayetteville with an equity investment tax credit, and Vivione Biosciences of Pine Bluff received $292,000 from the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock also voiced its approval in a letter to Burgess.

“We trust this alliance will give Arkansans a better understanding of the industry and its economic impact to our economy,” Susie Marks, the chamber’s vice president of programs, said in the letter. “As you move the alliance to the next step and lay out the groundwork for what it is seeking to accomplish, we offer whatever assistance we can give to help make that happen.”

‘Unsung Hero’

Burgess said that when the cluster is formed, it will be among the top 10 of its kind in the country, and, he hopes, will help attract other businesses to the state.

“My company relocated to Arkansas because of the very strong work ethic,” Warden said. “Not only do they have a great work ethic, but they have a pretty strong, and I think better than average, mechanical aptitude. I think it’s because they’ve grown up out here in small towns and they are used to doing something for themselves.”

The cluster, Warden said, should help other employers recognize this.

To Burgess, the photonics industry is an “unsung hero” in Arkansas.

“The main reason we began to talk about a photonics cluster is we saw Arkansas is ripe with photonics companies, but there was nothing tying the community of photonics companies together in the state,” Burgess said. “There are photonics clusters in seven or eight other states in the U.S., and they have been very successful in growing their economic fortunes by having a cluster and having the cluster focused, at least on some level, on economic development.”

“It’s a fairly small industry,” Warden said. “And when the companies partner together, one company may be good at one thing and another’s good at another. If they work together, they can leverage both companies’ strengths.”