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Exploring Industry – doing basic optical research with big business.

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Exploring Industry – doing basic optical research with big business.

By Matt Graham, OSA Ambassador, Associate Professor of Physics, Oregon State University, U.S.A.


Did industry-partnered basic research in optical sciences vanish with the old Bell Laboratories?  For the optical scientist who wants the freedom ‘to explore,’ I once thought there were few options or interest in basic optics outside universities and select national labs. When I embarked on my tenure-track adventure five-years ago, I only felt certain of two things; first, I would never enjoy teaching (it would always be a slog), and second, my ultrafast optics lab would never have a natural connection with industry.  Recently tenured, my academic journey has surprisingly been the polar-opposite; fun and dynamic teaching empower my research, and four great industrial partners now fund my research more reliably than any federal source.

How and why did I start basic optical research with industry?  When I started my lab in 2014, I convinced myself that industry would have no interest in basic optical physics, especially one that studies ultrafast dynamics in condensed phase materials.  As a young investigator, I thought the only way forward must be to ‘win a young investigator grant.’  I never missed a single deadline, submitting ~30 grants targeting “young investigators.” The net result was one small, short grant. With many young investigator competitions hovering at less than 5% success rate, it is debatable whether such grants ultimately help or hinder the new scientist. For myself, even a serendipitous big-win could never compensate my collective time-investment in the young-investigator grant-process.

      Rather than trying to master the nebulous art of grantsmanship endlessly, I decided to ‘jump-past’ the grant panels and to market my research directly to all those who would listen.  With an e-mail outbox filled with ignored emails to program officers, I began to contact my industry-leads with surprising results.  Below is what I learned from doing basic optical science with big business as a tenure-track optical scientist.   

How I did it. When approaching big-industry, the key was identifying an industry-relevant engineering challenge.  Next, suggest an approach where your lab’s unique equipment, light sources or specialized method may help resolve the ‘missing physics’.  This is the time to be bold; as an optical scientist, you have equipment and expertise they lack.  Don’t reinvent the wheel, purpose something unique that cannot be contracted out.

Networking and first-contact.  Visit your colleagues in engineering disciplines and ask someone familiar with your research for contacts or someone who can suggest industry-relevant challenges rooted in basic science.  Brand yourself -- What can you offer that is unique (for example, an advanced light source, precision measurement, a novel microscope, the best optical detector)? Then draft a proposal that describes how your research interacts with industry-related materials in development.  Leave the proposal open-ended (1-page is plenty) with additional details provided by your industry contacts to develop and market internally.  If you find the correct person, you’ll be surprised by their enthusiasm for your injection of novelty into their often hackneyed approaches.

SBIR/STTR grants (Small business innovative research and technology transfer grants) can be comparatively easy to acquire with a small or medium industry partner.  Unlike big business, smaller companies often do not have R&D budgets that can directly fund research conducted at universities.  Fortunately, U.S. Congress allocates 3.2% of all federal research R&D expenditures to go to small business.  The sheer volume of these $3 billion programs has meant most of these awards do not face the caliber of fierce competition common to standard R1 competitions for university PI.  Our lab has helped win multiple such awards from agencies that include NSF, DoD, and NIH.

With industry, fundamental optical science often sells better than applied research. Large conglomerates are likely not interested in paying your lab to do their photolithography research. Such applied projects are almost always better handled ‘in-house’ and tend to have large intellectual property hurdles. Instead, ask how you help solve one of the grand challenges facing an industrial development. What new equipment, protocols, and theoretical expertise can you bring? Ask yourself, what are you successfully doing in optics now that industry cannot?

Making sure everyone benefits. Occasionally, industry partnerships delay publication-output.  However, my lab’s experience suggests industry-bound PhDs benefit greatly from using fundamental optical science to solve real-world problems such as optical-switching, display transistor technology, and fast-photosensing. Once a solid relationship is built with an industry partner, they often will fully support that researcher throughout their degree and beyond. My experience suggests the career prospects for graduate students who interface regularly with big-industry almost always score the on-site job interviews.

Positive results:  My lab now has many industry-related grants from three major international companies and two small-businesses. These synergistic relationships have resulted in many publications, seven grants, and PhD internships for both my graduate and undergraduate students. Give industry a try; you’ll surprise yourself how often industry and universities are essentially solving the same fundamental grand-challenge problems in optical science from different angles. Try sharing your science synergistically with a seemingly odd bedfellow in industry; you may surprise yourself how quickly your basic science will impact the end-consumer.

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Posted: 29 August 2019 by Matt Graham, OSA Ambassador, Associate Professor of Physics, Oregon State University, U.S.A. | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.

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