investment within photonics, including government and company funding of R&D, followed by an examination of the ways in which the changing structure of the innovation process within photonics (including sources of R&D funding) reflects broader shifts in the sources of innovation within the U.S. economy. That section motivates the subsequent discussions of the role of venture-capital finance in photonics innovation, the role of university licensing, and the implications of offshore growth in the production of optics and photonics products for innovation in the field. This discussion of the changing structure of innovation finance and performance in the United States leads to the next section, which considers the implications of recent experiments in public-private and inter-firm R&D collaboration in other high-technology sectors for the photonics sector. Finally, conclusions and recommendations are presented.


The laser is a central technology within photonics, and a brief history of its development and expanding applications provides some insights into the economic effects of the much broader field of photonics, as well as underscoring the difficulties of measuring the economic impact of such a diverse field. First demonstrated in 1960 by Theodore Maiman of Hughes Aircraft, the laser built on fundamental research on microwave technology by Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow at Columbia University and Bell Labs, respectively. The laser exhibits many of the characteristics of a “general-purpose technology”1 (other examples include information technology [IT], steam power, and electrical power), in that laser technology itself has been transformed by a series of important innovations, with numerous new types of lasers developed over the past 50 years. Innovations in lasers have broadened the applications of this technology, many of which have produced dramatic improvements in the performance of technologies incorporating


1 Rosenberg, N., and M. Trajtenberg. 2004. A general-purpose technology at work: The Corliss steam engine in the late-nineteenth-century United States. Journal of Economic History 64:61-99. In this paper, Rosenberg and Trajtenberg highlight four characteristics of a “general-purpose technology” (GPT): “first, it is a technology characterized by general applicability, that is, by the fact that it performs some generic function that is vital to the functioning of a large number of using products or production systems. Second, GPTs exhibit a great deal of technological dynamism: continuous innovational efforts increase over time the efficiency with which the generic function is performed, benefiting existing users, and prompting further sectors to adopt the improved GPT. Third, GPTs exhibit ‘innovational complementarities’ with the application sectors, in the sense that technical advances in the GPT make it more profitable for its users to innovate and improve their own technologies. Thus, technical advance in the GPT fosters or makes possible advances across a broad spectrum of application sectors. Improvements in those sectors increase in turn the demand for the GPT itself, which makes it worthwhile to further invest in improving it, thus closing up a positive loop that may result in faster, sustained growth for the economy as a whole” (p. 65).

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement