From The Editor | May 23, 2023

NSF Invests In Photonics Innovation

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By John Oncea, Editor


The Advancing Photonics Technologies collaboration is one of more than 40 teams across the nation selected to receive one of the first-ever NSF Engines Development Awards, which provide up to two years of funding toward the planning of a multistate initiative to create economic, societal, and technological opportunities for their regions.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), is an independent federal agency that supports science and engineering in all 50 states and U.S. territories. It was established in 1950 by Congress to promote the progress of science, secure national defense, and advance national health, prosperity, and welfare.

NSF fulfills this mission chiefly by making grants that account for about 25% of federal support to America's colleges and universities for basic research. It also supports solutions-oriented research with the potential to produce advancements for the American people.

Recently, NSF announced the first-ever NSF Regional Innovation Engines program (NSF Engines) awards to 44 unique teams spanning universities, nonprofits, businesses, and other organizations across the U.S. states and territories. Each awardee team will receive up to $1 million for two years and NSF expects the program to transform the nation, ensuring the U.S. remains in the vanguard of competitiveness for decades to come.

NSF Engines catalyzes and fosters innovation ecosystems across the U.S. to: 

  • Advance critical technologies like semiconductors, artificial intelligence, advanced wireless, and biotechnology;
  • Address pressing national and societal challenges;
  • Cultivate partnerships across industry, academia, government, nonprofits, civil society, and communities of practice;
  • Promote and stimulate economic growth and job creation; and
  • Spur regional innovation and talent.

“These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation. Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and growing their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways, and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”

Enough About That – How Is This Related To Photonics?

Each award is aligned with a particular topic, ranging from sustainable energy to advanced agriculture to food security. One particular awardee team – Advancing Photonics Technologies – is a collaboration of universities, community colleges, industry, workforce development, and technology accelerators charged with amplifying application-driven research and technology translation combined with educational and workforce development. Princeton University (go Tigers!) is the lead institution and Rowan University (go Professorial Owls!) is the co-lead institution.

Craig B. Arnold, Vice Dean for Innovation, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton University is the team’s Principal Investigator and Rowan’s Visiting Assistant Professor, Photonics Coordinator Robert Chimenti is Co-Principal Investigator.

One of Advancing Photonics Technologies groups – Photonics Research and Development Working Group (WG4) – will be co-led by Himanshu Jain, Lehigh University, and Deirdre O’Carroll, Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Jain is a Diamond Distinguished Chair and Professor with an extensive record of publications, awards, and leadership in the field of optical materials. O’Carroll is Associate Professor and graduate program director at Rutgers with a long-standing history of research excellence in the area of photonic devices.

The Path To Success

Over the two years of the NSF Engines Development Award, Advance Photonics Technologies wants to lay the groundwork for a vibrant photonics ecosystem across New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. To accomplish this, the group will create a diverse and inclusive research and innovation ecosystem around photonics, expansive opportunities for the translation of technological and scientific breakthroughs from research labs to industry, and a robust pipeline for job creation and workforce development.

The first year will focus on gathering data and analyzing the landscape, as well as expanding working groups to engage stakeholders, practitioners, experts, and beneficiaries. The plans for year two include formalizing partnerships and prospective governance structures, actualizing agreements, and launching outreach and engagement efforts.

Throughout the entire process activities, outcomes, and progress will be well documented to demonstrate accountability for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

Five major activities are already in the works:

  1. Strategic Planning Working Groups: The working groups are the main mechanisms for the team to plan and support growth.
  2. New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP) Project: NJMEP is part of a national network of public-private organizations whose charter was established by Congress to improve the profitability and competitiveness of New Jersey manufacturers through workforce development and assessment consulting. NJMEP will work closely with the working groups to assess, study, and develop a tailored and focused training program for the photonics industry in the region. Non-college-bound individuals will be targeted, opening pathways to manufacturing employment that offer high pay, career growth, and ongoing training and education.
  3. Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) Project: Core partners Rowan University and RCSJ serve as co-leads for higher education partners to assess and plan models for stackable and micro-credentials, an associate’s degree program in photonics, as well as a master’s program in photonic technologies, all of which will be developed with a focus on DEIA to address underrepresentation in photonics.
  4. VentureWell Project: VentureWell brings expertise in evaluating innovation ecosystems with an equity lens and in the context of NSF programs. VentureWell has a 15-year record of supporting multiple, large-scale federal innovation programs. VentureWell will provide an evaluation and assessment of the innovation and educational ecosystems. In addition, they will assist in creating future assessment metrics and evaluating the potential impact of Advancing Photonics Technologies’ strategic plans.
  5. Public Workshop/Conferences: The group plans to organize two public workshops/conferences, one at Princeton and one at Rowan, dedicated to photonics innovation. The conferences will include talks from affiliated researchers and invited keynote from key government, academic, and industry thought leaders, as well as stakeholders who may lead, or participate in education and workforce development programs.

Senior Partners And Collaborators

The NSF Engines program was launched by NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships and authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. “This initiative unites colleges and universities, startups, and established companies across our region to catalyze research, develop new technologies, create jobs, and strengthen the economy,” said Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University. “Princeton is proud to be part of this National Science Foundation program, which is helping to grow scientific research and technological innovation in every part of our nation.”

A total of 31 universities and colleges, companies, economic development agencies, and incubators and accelerators round out the Advancing Photonics Technologies team:

Universities And Colleges

  • Yasaman Ghasempour, Claire Gmachl, Paul Prucnal, Kaushik Sengupta, Princeton University
  • Samuel Lofland, Rowan University
  • Mohammed Khan, Delaware State University
  • Himanshu Jain, Lehigh University
  • Kevin Belfield, New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • John Mazurowski, Penn State
  • Brendan Rickards, Rowan College of South Jersey
  • Deirdre O'Carroll, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
  • Piotr Piotrowiak, Rutgers University - Newark
  • Yuping Huang, Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Brian Lake, Sussex County Community College
  • Tingyi Gu, University of Delaware


  • Gregory Hollows, Edmund Optics
  • Simin Cai, Go!Foton
  • Kate Pritchard, Hamamatsu
  • Stacey Carrier, Hellma USA
  • Andrew Whitley, Horiba Scientific
  • Michael Hlavaty, Kearfott Corporation
  • Nancy Morris, Metrohm Spectro
  • Theodore Sizer, Nokia Bell Labs
  • Karen Liu, Nubis Communications
  • Cari August, OFS
  • Jamie LaCouture, Thorlabs

Statewide Economic Development Agencies

  • Judith Sheft, New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation, and Technology
  • Jackie Burke, New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools
  • Douglas Yorke, New Jersey Economic Development Authority
  • F. Christian Mdeway, New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program

Entrepreneurial Incubators And Accelerators

  • Christian Theriault, Material Impact
  • Beth Rowley, Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs
  • Susan Schofer, SOSV’s HAX
  • Chithra Adams, VentureWell