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Founding director of Photonics Center to retire

Donald Fraser led Center that spawned 18 companies

Don Fraser. BU Photo Services

After nearly a dozen years of shepherding innovative technologies from the lab to the marketplace and the military, Donald Fraser, the founding director of the Photonics Center, will step down this month, beginning with a sabbatical.

The center, which began work in 1994, identifies and develops light-based technologies for uses ranging from medicine to national defense. During Fraser’s tenure, the Center grew from concept to reality, highlighted by the development of its $85 million St. Mary’s Street facility in 1997. Here, the Photonics Center has supported numerous startup companies with its 21 shared engineering labs, office space, and other facilities. It has also fostered strong connections between the University and the Department of Defense.

Fraser says the center emerged from a “vision to engage the University with society.”  

“Working with the government and the private sector,” he says, “has been a way of serving the needs of a nation while serving the needs of companies.”

Boston University President Robert Brown has high praise for the work done during Fraser’s tenure. “Don led the establishment of one of the most innovative models for facilitating technology development within any university,” says Brown. “The center is critical to BU’s entrepreneurial environment for our faculty, staff, and students.”

Deputy Director Glenn Thoren notes that the 18 companies that have gone through the center’s Business Accelerator program have garnered about $250 million in venture capital support. 

“Clearly, the venture capitalists are speaking with their wallets on the quality of the organizations that the Photonics Center has chosen to engage,” he says.

The center’s interim director will be Thomas Bifano, a College of Engineering professor and chairman of the manufacturing engineering department. Provost David Campbell will launch a search committee for a new permanent director, with the aim of naming one by the end of 2006.

“Donald Fraser was a good advisor, and he also had a very sincere wish in making the University more effective at translating basic research into products that help society,” says Bifano, who heads a lab housed in the Photonics Center that specializes in deformable mirrors for telescopes, microscopes, and retinal imaging.   

Before joining the University, Fraser served in the administration of George H. W. Bush as the number-two acquisition official in the Department of Defense, responsible for an annual budget of approximately $100 billion. He also spent nearly 30 years at Draper Laboratory, leading the design and development of guidance, control, and navigation systems for the Apollo space missions and for the Trident and MX missiles, and rising to the position of executive vice president and chief operating officer. Last year, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) named Fraser an Honorary Fellow, a distinction previously bestowed on the likes of Orville Wright and Neil Armstrong.

Fraser has been “an inspiration to all of us on the staff,” says Thoren. “[The Photonics Center] is one of the shining stars of the University.”