A university institute for the optical sciences has turned Tucson into a haven for startups and new research.
TUCSON--In 1981, scientists at IBM were looking for a better way to check whether the surfaces of the company's magnetic tapes were smooth. Dragging a stylus along the tape, the conventional method, threatened to damage the surface. Then IBM optics engineer Bherat Bhushen had a bright idea. Why not look for irregularities by bouncing light off the surface?

Bhushen turned for help to James Wyant, a professor in the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. Wyant and a colleague solved IBM's problem by developing a product, an interferometer known as TOPO, which scans surfaces to detect rough spots. Within a few years Wyant had started a company, WYKO - and last year the young company sold $12 million worth of testing equipment.

Wyant's success story is one of many cited...

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