The Growing Photonics Cluster of the Boston Area
As they lighted the candles in their ship, the Pilgrim families traveling on the Mayflower had no idea they would help build a nation that would become a major pioneer in light technology and many other fields.
The United States features many areas with a strong photonics background, including the many companies in California’s Silicon Valley and the regions close to the country’s leading optics universities, such as Colorado, New York, Arizona, and Florida.
However, the Greater Boston area and Massachusetts state, in general, are becoming an increasingly important photonics hub with world-class universities and many successful optics and photonics initiatives and companies. Let’s talk a bit more about their legacy with light-based technology and the history of the town of Maynard with the high-tech industry.
From World-Class Labs to the Real World
The Boston area features many world-class universities collaborating with the government and industry to develop new photonics technology. Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston University, Tufts University, and Northeastern University are major research institutions in the area that lead many photonics-related initiatives.
The state of Massachusetts, in general, has also been home to several prosperous photonics businesses, and initiatives are being made to capitalize on Boston’s extensive medical industry knowledge to boost biomedical optics and photonics. Raytheon, Polaroid, and IPG Photonics are examples of Massachusetts-based businesses that promoted optical technology.
The US federal government and Massachusetts state are committing resources to get these academic and industry partners to collaborate as much as possible. In 2015, the Lab for Education and Application Prototypes (LEAP) network was established as part of a federal drive to revive American manufacturing. The Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative, a state grant program, and AIM Photonics, the national manufacturing institution, each contributed $11.3 million to constructing labs around Massachusetts universities and colleges.
The LEAP Network objectives are to teach integrated photonics manufacturing practice, offer companies technician training and certification, encourage company engagement in the tool, process, and application upgrades, and support AIM Photonics in their manufacturing and testing.
These partnerships form a statewide ecosystem to educate the manufacturing workforce throughout the photonics supply chain. The facilities’ strategic placement next to both universities and community colleges allows them to attract students from all areas and stages of their careers, from technicians to engineers to fundamental researchers.
From the Mill to High Tech: The Story of Maynard
A trip down Route 2 into Middlesex County, 25 miles northwest of Boston, will take one past apple orchards, vineyards, and some of Massachusetts’ most stunning nature preserves before arriving at a historic mill on the Assabet River. The community around this mill, Maynard, is a charming and surprisingly historical hub of economic innovation that houses an emerging tech ecosystem.
The renowned Assabet Woolen Mill was established for textile manufacturing in 1847 by Amory Maynard, who by the age of 16 was managing his own sawmill company. Initially a carpet manufacturing plant, Maynard’s enterprise produced blankets and uniforms for the Union Army during the Civil War. The company employed immigrants from Ireland, Finland, Poland, Russia, and Italy, many of them coming to the mill for jobs as soon as they arrived in the nation. By the 1930s, the town of Maynard was recognized as one of the most multi-ethnic places in the state.
The Assabet Woolen Mill continued to create textiles until 1950. The 11-acre former mill complex, currently named Mill and Main, is the contemporary expression of the town’s evolution and relationship with innovative industry.
The Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) occupied the facility before the end of the 50s with just $70,000 cash and three engineers. From the 1960s onward, DEC became a major global supplier of computer systems and enjoyed tremendous growth. It’s hard to overstate the company’s impact on Maynard, which became the ” Mini Computer Capital of the World” in barely twenty years.
Following DEC’s departure, the mill complex was sold and rented out to a fresh group of young and ambitious computer startups, many of whom are still operating today. Since then, more people and companies have joined, noting the affordable real estate, the enjoyable commute and environs, and the obvious cluster of IT enterprises. For example, when Acacia Communications, Inc. was established in 2009 and needed a home, Maynard’s mill space was a natural fit.