Western, UNC-C, Clemson sign agreement forming Micro-Optics Triangle

CLEMSON, S.C. – Western Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Clemson University leaders signed an agreement Monday, June 10, to help attract high-tech industries that have traditionally located in the Research Triangle Park or Silicon Valley and to prepare students for careers with those companies.

The partnership comes as the universities have been working in cooperation with economic development groups in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina to develop strategies to replace jobs lost in textiles, furniture and tobacco industries with new careers in the emerging field of photonics.

The Carolinas Micro-Optics Triangle, a regional research alliance established with a pledge of $15 million in initial federal funding from U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, will enable the three universities to pool resources to tap into the $170 billion-a-year photonics industry.

Photonics, sometimes called electronics at the speed of light, is the science upon which today’s information technology is built and is the backbone of the Internet-driven technology revolution. The newly formed triangle will specialize in micro-optics, miniature structures that communicate and process information as light via optic fibers, as opposed to electrons over copper wire.

The heads of three universities (right to left), University of North Carolina at Charlotte's James Woodward, Western Carolina's John W. Bardo and Clemson's James F. Barker, sign agreements creating the Carolinas Micro-Optics Triangle as U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor (far left) looks on.

The heads of three universities (right to left), University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s James Woodward, Western Carolina’s John W. Bardo and Clemson’s James F. Barker, sign agreements creating the Carolinas Micro-Optics Triangle as U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor (far left) looks on.

The partnership, which will target basic research, manufacturing processes and student education, is part of an ongoing effort to make Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina attractive to major industries that manufacture optoelectronic and photonic components, Taylor said. The alliance also has an entrepreneurial element through the creation of “spin-off” companies expected to emerge from the research and education efforts.

“We want to make Western North Carolina and partner Upstate South Carolina major players in the realm of information technology and the new economy,” Taylor said. “The formation of the Carolinas Micro-Optics Triangle is another major step toward achieving that goal. These three institutions are uniquely positioned to develop the new materials, techniques and talent critical to the continuing development of optical technology in the region.”

Western Carolina Chancellor John Bardo called the agreement a golden opportunity to create a different economic future for the people of WNC and the Upstate from what those regions have experienced in recent years.

“For too long, Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina have been the hole in the economic doughnut,” Bardo said. “Economic development is taking place all around our region, but not in our region. We need to help bring some of that development to the western Carolinas.”

The agreement takes advantage of natural linkages that have always existed between the Upstate and WNC, but have gone untapped, he said. “We have to come together if we are going to build a vibrant economy in the western Carolinas,” Bardo said. “We believe the future of the region is more optimistic because of the willingness of institutions to cooperate, to work together and to cross state lines.”

Clemson University President James F. Barker, who presided over the signing ceremony, echoed those sentiments. “Sometimes, because we are governed by different legislatures or general assemblies, we don’t think often enough about crossing those lines,” Barker said. “This agreement today shows what can happen when we adjust our thinking to a more regional approach.”

UNC-C Chancellor James Woodward said that 100 new jobs have already been created by new companies spinning off from the partner universities’ efforts in the photonics and optoelectronics realm, with the potential for thousands more as a result of the new agreement. With 70 percent of the world’s optical fiber production coming out of North Carolina and Georgia, “we have as good an opportunity as anybody else in the country to become the optoelectronics and photonics center for the entire country,” Woodward said.

“One of the advantages of this partnership between our three universities is that our areas of concentration actually complement one another,” he said. “They do not compete with one another, so it’s a logical fit.”

Through the collaboration, Clemson will conduct research on new photonics materials, UNC-Charlotte will develop the high-precision molds for optical components and provide a proof of design concept using materials developed by Clemson, and, as large-scale production processes evolve, Western Carolina’s Center for Integrated Technologies will assemble the parts.