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5. Innovation Corner

The Miller group has been involved in technology development right from the very beginning, largely driven by necessity. The first technological development involved the elimination of parasitic acoustics or ringing in LiNbO3 pockels cells used as q-switches or cavity dumping of laser cavities (U of Rochester days, circa 1985). This effect was limiting laser repetition rates and output power by an order of magnitude over expected. The problem was solved by critical damping of the peizo-excited acoustics. This technology was patented and was offered commercially. This was followed by the introduction of high frequency triode drivers (that really helped open up femtosecond laser technology as one generally can’t do femtosecond spectroscopy and nonlinear spectroscopies without being able to obtain single amplified pulses). The group also developed a low cost, robust, scanning tunneling microscope for dual research and teaching applications that was commercialized by Burleigh instruments (circa 1993), along with novel imaging processing software that was the most sophisticated of its kind at the time (used morphological filters to reduce noise with minimal loss in structural information). This instrument generated 7 figures in sales and enabled thousands of students to see atoms first hand via the STM.

The Miller group was also heavily involved in collaborative research on laser source development with Lumonics Inc. (circa 1995-2000) that was at the time the largest industrial laser manufacturer (sold to GSI). The group developed high power diode pump solid state lasers in the UV range (multi-watt) that were used for laser marking and rapid hole drilling. You have a 70% chance of flying on a plane in which the aerospace wiring was marked with our laser. Intel purchased $80M of laser machining systems for high density circuit boards in the first year of product release – in which our laser was the heart of the system.

This industrial partnership taught the group an enormous amount about industrial based research, project management, and how to do the full cycle in product development. It was this experience that led to the first company spin off (Femtonics) from the group. We knew what was needed to be successful from our interactions with Lumonics. The key enabling Intellectual Property was based on the use of diffractive optics to write complex structures/devices directly inside optical fibre waveguides. This concept led to the most efficient fibre tap to monitor fibre optical networks and stability that is still in use today. The company was sold to a telecom company but its technology is still being employed for telecom component manufacturing. Since then the group has started up a total of 6 companies, directly with students who at the time were still in the group. Three of these companies are still in operation.

In considering the company start ups involving former group members, the total number of company start ups is over 10 with an estimate of over 100 jobs created in the process - based on revenue. We are also quite proud of the accomplishments of former group members. If one extends the analysis to include enabling technologies developed by former group members, the number of licenses/patents goes well over 100. Some of the developments have led to ultrahigh power lasers that are being considered for next generation high throughput semiconductor manufacturing to novel coatings/water soluble paints that are saving the planet from thousands of tons of chlorocarbon solvents each year. The associated jobs with these innovations are hard to estimate but one can get a sense that the number is quite significant (>>100).

There is a strong commitment to take the findings in the laboratory and put them into practice. Light Matter Interaction Inc. (LMI) is a case in point (see ) of one of the group startups where there is still a strong partnership to take the laser technology and understanding of strongly driven phase transitions into medical applications. If you ever have laser surgery in your life, in which scar tissue is avoided for an improved outcome, it will trace its origins to this work... and some blue sky research that revealed how to do this.

This emphasis on innovation and knowledge translation into social economic benefit is driven by the students. Only 10% of trained PhDs go on to academic research. The large majority of students find positions in industry and often are “underemployed”. The overall motivation for this activity is to enable students in the group to create their own jobs. The group has developed an entrepreneurial spirit that has made it possible to see our science truly go out of the lab and into the real world – science in action. We are helping to make the world a better place and answering the classic question “So what’s it good for?”.