Photonics Center Celebrates Ten Years of Light

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Photonics Center Director Thomas Bifano holds an early prototype of the 'penguin shoe' as he speaks about the Center's history.
Photonics Center Director Thomas Bifano holds an early prototype of the 'penguin shoe' as he speaks about the Center's history.

The Boston University Photonics Center opened its doors on June 13, 1997, and has since welcomed students, entrepreneurs, professors, researchers and, once, even a penguin.

The center celebrated its 10th anniversary on June 8, with a symposium hosting 140 attendees to look back at the center’s construction and growth as well as ahead to a future rich in research, collaboration and entrepreneurialism.

“The Photonics Center is a well-functioning, properly-incentivized, openly collaborative interdisciplinary research center. It is a porous entity that allows people, ideas and projects to flow in and out of it,” said BU President Robert Brown. “It is the home of new collaborations in science and technology and of the continuous seamless transition from innovation to commercialization.”

Photonics Center Director Thomas Bifano, a professor of manufacturing engineering, spoke about the history and ideals of the center. Before any cement hit the ground, he said, “The vision was to create a center that would contribute new scientific knowledge and technological development to the field of photonics, especially with regard to core problems of importance to defense.”

Today, faculty members from seven departments at BU, including all four engineering departments, research topics from medicine to astronomy in the Photonics Center, with more than $17 million in annual funding. The 235,000-square-foot building houses classrooms, specialized optics and precision measurement laboratories, an optoelectronic processing facility and a business incubator.

The first decade delivered on many of the Photonics Center’s original goals. Prof. Theodore Moustakas’ (ECE) blue LED technology is used around the world. Sophisticated defense tools such as the REDOWL anti-sniper system germinated at the Photonics Center, nurtured by College of Engineering alumnus Socrates Deligeorges (BME ’97, ’04),  president of Bio-Mimetic Systems, the company developing this technology. Researchers have also received recognition for photonics research, including Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering chair Bahaa Saleh’s recent Kuwait Prize for his extensive work in optics.

As the Photonics Center advances into new areas including biophotonics, nanophotonics and photonic materials, Bifano said, it continues to focus on values of interdisciplinary education, sustained entrepreneurship, innovation, collaboration and outreach. The last of these qualities, recalled Bifano, resulted in a penguin visiting the center when the New England Aquarium asked for help. The bird had sores on its feet that infrared light could heal, so the penguin visited the Photonics Center to receive its curative IR therapy.

Symposium speakers included entrepreneurs who had developed businesses in the Photonics Center Incubator.

“The whole center is very helpful to entrepreneurial efforts. The key to being successful at the Photonics Center was having access to faculty, students and laboratories,” said Doug Adams, who started a company called SOLX to develop a novel glaucoma drug delivery system at the Incubator. He is now president of OccuLogix, the company that acquired SOLX.  Small start-up companies need a “long runway” to succeed said Adams, and the Photonics Center provides it. “It’s a wonderful place to grow a company,” he said.

David A.B. Miller, co-director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center, delivered a lunchtime colloquium in which he discussed trends and opportunities for future photonics research including silicon photonics and nanophotonics. Light holds enormous potential for carrying information, he said, but researchers and industry have yet to take full advantage of this capability.

Additional sessions on bioimaging and photonics materials highlighted some current photonics research at BU — from Amit Meller’s work on ultra-fast DNA sequencing to Moustakas’ research in solid state lighting.

For more information on the Photonics center and the recent symposium, please visit the Photonics Center website.