Innovation Manufacturing

NSF Engines Initiative Could Bring Nearly $200 Million to the Photonics Industry in NJ

Princeton Vice Dean of Innovation Says Workforce Development is the Glue That Will Help Strengthen the Optics and Photonics Landscape in New Jersey


What is photonics? “It’s the use and control of light, in the most basic sense,” says Dr. Craig B. Arnold, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Vice Dean for Innovation at Princeton University. Dr. Arnold is the Principal Investigator for the Princeton-led, National Science Foundation (NSF) funded consortium for photonics research and workforce development. He shares this honor with co-lead Professor Robert Chimenti of Rowan University, who, together with nearly a dozen other Universities, local companies, and State entities, hope to advance research, transition discoveries into the economy, and build the region’s technological workforce. This new photonics initiative is made possible by the NSF’s Engines program, a program authorized by the CHIPs and Science Act whose purpose is to foster useinspired research and development, translate innovation results to societally usable technologies, and support workforce development to help grow and sustain regional innovation.

The central theme behind the photonics initiative is to combine the efforts of colleges and universities, startups and established companies, and manufacturers across New Jersey and the region to catalyze research, develop new technologies, create jobs and a more qualified and higher-paid technological workforce, and to strengthen the economy overall. It’s a particularly important program for technology manufacturers, because as Research and Development (R&D) ramps up, the need for specialized components and new technologies will bring business to the industry.


“When you think about the community of optics and photonics manufacturers, researchers, developers,” says Dr. Arnold, “What you realize is that they’re a platform or foundation—they create the components and the bits and pieces that help us do the incredible things that we might want to do all across the different [photonics] disciplines.”

We learned a lot of valuable lessons during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in terms of supply chain interruptions with semiconductors, and optics and photonics are similar in the sense that there are so many essential products and technologies that depend on them in some form.

“From everyday consumer products like a sensor in a washer/dryer that detects the amount of water vapor in the air. Whether it’s in agriculture, medicine, or communications—all of these things work or depend on light, or photons, or using them in some special way. It’s not only an important technological area, but it’s also an important strategic, supply chain, and manufacturing knowledge and ability to be able to produce these vital components in-house, in-state, and in-country.”

Dr. Craig Arnold, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Vice Dean for Innovation, Princeton University


One of the key elements of this partnership between industry, academia, and government is how industry in New Jersey will be affected and how manufacturers stand to benefit from this initiative. “What’s really important and notable, particularly , is how much this thing is truly about creating an entire ecosystem and not just doing the research,” says Dr. Arnold. Research is a major component he admits, “But this is also about creating jobs, it’s also about training the workforce and creating programs and thinking about how someone can get into the field that doesn’t have a PhD from Princeton University,” he adds modestly.


The NSF Regional Innovation Engines program follows an innovation ecosystem life cycle, which consists of five phases: Development, Nascent, Emergent, Growth, and Mature. Currently, the Princeton NSF Engines project is in the first phase, the development phase, which will focus on defining the scope of the project and laying out a strategic plan. One of the key areas of focus for Dr. Arnold is going to be on workforce development.

“We really looked hard at how to engage with community colleges, vocational and technical schools, and how we can build micro credentialing programs so that people who are in the workforce can be retrained to meet the needs of the optics and photonics space, or maybe people who are just entering the workforce for the first time will have an avenue to become a part of something at this level,” says Dr. Arnold.

For the Princeton-led initiative, they’re working with over a dozen other educational institutions, local businesses, and industry partners— including NJMEP—to get a better grasp of how this initiative can be a wholistic value for the region. “In listening to our industrial members and partners, there’s a real need for skilled people—today,” adds Arnold. “Creating jobs is something that we’re going to continue to do to continue to push the technology forward, but even today there’s a real need in our region to meet the demand that current industry has, and I think that’s a very immediate and important thing for us to be focused on.” Innovation and growth are no stranger to New Jersey, where for centuries industries have evolved and flourished in the Garden State. In part, this is because of New Jersey’s strategic positioning, but it also can be contributed to its incredibly dense and diverse population.

“It’s really key to remember that the workforce in NJ is incredibly diverse, it’s probably one of the most diverse places in the country,” says Arnold. “You have people with various degrees of educational background. We have a tremendous, highly educated population and a tremendous working population. We also have a population of people who return—people who may have been in the military or people who may have been in other fields, other places. It’s incumbent on us to help retrain them, help give them the skills that they need—again, programs like NJMEP run, apprenticeship programs,” he adds. “These are things that I think are really critical to meeting the [workforce] demands that we have today.”


When asked what the short-term goals are for the NSF Innovations Engine, Dr. Arnold confirms that the first phase will be for planning and strategizing, with a focus on workforce development and putting the infrastructure in place to better support the larger initiatives coming down the pipeline. “Let’s call it economic development,” he responds. “I think one of the most immediate impacts will be workforce development. The short-term and main goal right now really is planning and developing a path forward for the actual Engines Hub,” adds Arnold. “Right now, we’re trying to develop it, so you can think of this as the preliminary step toward a much bigger effort.”


If things go well for the Princeton-led NSF Engine, the program could have the opportunity to receive up to $160 million in NSF funding over the course of 10 years to implement their strategic plans, which would be a massive boost to the research, industrial, and technological landscape in New Jersey.

“There’s not many places that have all of the elements that it takes to be successful as an innovation center, as a hub, as a driver of national and international technologies,” says Dr. Arnold. “Yet somehow it’s been difficult for us to put it all together.” An analogy emerges regarding the overall socio-political situation in New Jersey, which has historically been a very disconnected ecosystem, both in terms of geographic identity and infrastructure.

“The real plan is, can we weave together the pieces of the puzzle that we have to paint the real picture?” asks Arnold.

“Here in New Jersey, we have all of the bits and pieces to be the national and global lead in optics and photonics. We have all the pieces and yet we don’t have a lot of the connections or interfaces worked out.”

Dr. Craig Arnold, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Vice Dean for Innovation, Princeton University

“We have the workforce, we have the greatest population density of anywhere in the country, but it’s really going to be about creating an institute that can really help bring all of these elements together—one that can train people, can help companies with their path to market, can help them innovate, and can help make those connections that move a product up the food chain. These are the kinds of things we want to see come out of this initiative,” he adds. It’s an exciting opportunity for New Jersey’s students, researchers, skilled and unskilled workers, and industry partners, and even though the project is in its infancy, with a future uncertain, Dr. Arnold believes we have the components to interconnect the various elements of a disjointed region and make the connections needed to drive innovation and technological advancement. However, it’s not without its challenges and it’s going to take collaboration on all sides of the equation.

“I think that some of the workforce training is part of the glue,” adds Arnold. “I think connecting research universities like Princeton and Rutgers is part of the glue. I think state involvement is critical and participation by agencies within the state—I think all of these things are critical to really blow it up. I’m really excited because today I see that desire on all sides, I see that action on all sides, I see the government is engaged in this, universities are engaged, industry is engaged, and that makes me really excited.”

This industry partnership between NJMEP and the Princeton-led NSF Engine was facilitated by NJMEP’s Christian Mdeway, Director of Innovation, and will prove invaluable for workforce development and innovation within New Jersey. Mdeway will be working to coordinate Academia and Industry to ensure both entities work together to have the largest possible impact on the workforce, industry, New Jersey, and the Nation. NJMEP will leverage existing initiatives like the New Jersey Defense Manufacturing Community Consortium (NJDMCC), the Pathways Program, and our renewed focus on industry in Central and South Jersey to help weave the essential components and make Dr. Arnold’s vision of a unified, interwoven, technology and innovation hub a reality.

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