October 04, 2011

Could Nanotechnology Revive Region's Economy?

By: Elizabeth Cooper

Source: Utica Observer-Dispatch

The 900 local jobs that could be generated by the massive private investment in the state's nanotechnology industry could dramatically change the area's economic outlook.

The ripple effect on the local economy would be tremendous: Restaurants might fill, supermarkets might sell more food, contractors could find themselves with more work.

The possibilities are endless - if the jobs materialize.

In an area that's seen its share of disappointments, promises of influxes of jobs and revenue are often met with skepticism.

But the nanotechnology surrounding SUNY's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is already helping to transform Albany.

"There were many people here who did not believe," said Kevin O'Connor, president and CEO of Tech Valley Communications, a successful fiber-optics firm he started to serve that city's burgeoning tech community.

O'Connor credited Alain Kaloyeros, the senior vice president and CEO of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. Kaloyeros is at the heart of the statewide endeavor as well.

"Upstate New York was never really known as a high growth area," O'Connor said. "What has happened is this guy has enabled a diversification of this area from public employment to private employment."

And Kaloyeros has been adamant that the jobs that have been promised will come to the Utica-Rome area.

"We will do whatever it takes to provide the resources to locate the 900 jobs in your neighborhood," he said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $4.4 billion in private investment in nanotechnology initiatives in New York State.

Five major companies -Intel, IBM, Global Foundries, TSMC ands Samsung - have entered into agreements with the state to advance the next generation of computer chip technology in New York.

About 450 jobs are expected to be associated with a planned Computer Chip Commercialization Center, known as the Quad C, and Center for Advanced Technology at SUNYIT's Marcy campus.

When those projects were announced in 2009, 450 jobs were expected to land there. The 450 jobs announced Tuesday are in addition to those. Construction is set to start in spring 2012 and be finished sometime in 2013.

The bulk of the 900 jobs should be in place within two years, officials close to the project have said.

Ripple effects

Kaloyeros said that in Albany, numerous smaller companies had moved in to participate in what he called "our ecosystem" of technology initiatives.

That's expected to happen in Oneida County as well, he said.

"We hope and expect and are going to require some of the companies that we are going to attract, we are going to mandate that if they want to be part of our ecosystem they have to locate in Utica-Rome," he said. "Either at the Quad C or in the community, whatever makes sense for them."

He said he was "optimistic" that one of those small high-tech companies would soon be announcing a presence in the area.

And nanotechnology industry watchers are taking the news seriously.

Peter Singer, editor in chief of Solid State Technology, a publication focusing on the nanotechnology industry, called Cuomo's announcement "really big," and "a huge amount of money from the biggest companies in the industry."

He said major players in the industry already had been shifting their operations from places such as California and Austin, Texas, to Albany because of the facilities that already exist there.

"The entire U.S. semiconductor industry is coalescing there," he said. "That announcement makes it even more of a center."

More chips, lower cost

One aspect of what will be happening in New York is research that could enable companies to make more chips faster, Singer said.

Nanochips are the tiny computer chips that operate electronic items ranging from cellphones to complicated medical devices. Research and development in the field is so costly that even major computer companies often prefer to come together to pay for facilities to do it.

Though the technology is complex, the concept is simple. In chip fabrication plants, many computer chips are made at once on a single sheet called a wafer. Currently, the wafers are 300 millimeters in size. The industry wants to see if it's viable to make them on a 450-millimeter wafer.

"The whole thing is driven by costs," Singer said. "They just want to make more chips at a lower cost."

But the larger wafer will mean that all the equipment for making the chips will have to be retooled.

"This is feasibility studies and the development of the technology," Singer said. "They need to demonstrate that you can actually produce a chip on a 450 mm wafer."

State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-NY, said one of the new manufacturing plants that comes out of the research could end up upstate.

"Utica will wind up one of the prime sites," he said.


If everything falls into place with this plan, it will be a major boost for the sagging local economy.

Kaloyeros said the average salary for the positions is $87,500, and the range is between $40,000 and $200,000.

In Oneida County, the median household income is $47,286.

Mohawk Valley Community College Professor Arthur Friedberg noted that if that projection is accurate, it would mean an additional $35 million a year in salaries locally.

The economic ripple effect of that cash infusion is three times that, or $105 million, because how dollars turn over in communities, he said.

"It will impact many other businesses in terms of sales and profits and employment and so on," he said. "If these facilities are open year after year, that effect will continue to be felt in the local economy."