No one can accuse Michael Cumbo, the new CEO of AIM photonics, of being risk-averse. In the middle of a pandemic that has had most of us working from home, he left the Bay Area and an executive position at ZYGO to drive across the country to upstate New York, where he assumed leadership for an organization he had never visited and whose management and staff he had met only through virtual interviews.
The CEO role marks the third time the Rochester, N.Y., native has returned to upstate New York to take on a professional challenge. In 2004 he became CEO at Ithaca-based BinOptics (acquired by MACOM in 2014), and in 2009 he again returned to the upstate area to help manage the IDEX acquisition of Semrock.
Michael Cumbo, CEO, AIM Photonics.Cumbo’s latest cross-country trip comes as AIM Photonics celebrates its first five years and heads into an exciting new phase of development. Cumbo was recruited by AIM in early 2020 to help it transition from a primarily state- and federally funded organization to an independent, commercially and economically viable business. “During its first five years, AIM was focused on achieving state-of-the-art capabilities,” Cumbo said. “This will be the second chapter for AIM, where it depends less on government funding and more on itself.” AIM is one of only 14 U.S. Manufacturing Innovative Institutes to be federally funded. AIM and seven others are funded by the Department of Defense, and the remaining institutions are funded by either the Department of Energy or the Department of Commerce.
To guide AIM successfully through the next stage, Cumbo said, clarity of vision will be essential, as will teamwork. “It’s important to think about where we want to be strategically as an organization before we put work into it. This is a trait of every successful company,” he said. “As Stephen Covey wrote in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ begin with the end in mind.”
Although the pandemic has made working as a unified team more challenging, Cumbo believes it’s essential to developing technologies and manufacturing products as complex as integrated photonics: “We must have alignment among the members of the team. There needs to be a process for the sharing of ideas, but once everyone has had a chance to air their opinions, it’s time to make a decision, and the team must work together to put that decision into practice.”
To that end, in the near term one of Cumbo’s primary goals will be to build unity between AIM’s Albany and Rochester sites. “The team has talent, intellect, and energy. I don’t need to be a cheerleader or a disciplinarian — the motivation, desire, and ability are all there, and there is a hunger to fulfill our mission,” he said. By strengthening the connection between the two sites, he hopes to establish a collaborative work environment with clear and congruent goals. Maximum open-book communication and the sharing of all available resources are the keys to achieving unity under what he calls the “One AIM” objective.
Over the long term, Cumbo is determined to ensure that the U.S. guides in integrated photonics. “AIM stands for American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics,” he said. “I want to make sure that AIM is a driving force in ensuring that America is the leader in integrated photonics. We don’t want to cede that position to anyone else. It’s too important an industry.”
Cumbo supports the resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. “We don’t want to become insulated from international competition, but the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, where other countries are doing most of our manufacturing for us,” he said. “In accepting the CEO challenge at AIM, I hope to help move the pendulum to a more balanced position by encouraging American companies to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.”
The tempo of AIM’s work with its 124 consortium members at its state-of-the-art facilities in Rochester and Albany will only increase, he said. AIM and its member organizations have built the foundation for an integrated photonics ecosystem — an interactive community of functions, capabilities, and components that together form a complete, self-reliant system. Over the next five years, Cumbo is resolved to make AIM a regenerative, self-sustaining source in integrated photonics, from conceptual design to prototyping to volume production. He expects significant job growth and activity in rapidly growing market segments enabled by optics and photonics, such as big data, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and autonomous vehicles. “AIM is perfectly positioned for this market growth, for supporting U.S.- and NATO-based companies to enter and succeed in it, and for strengthening the American manufacturing base,” he said.
Cumbo has been president of IDEX Optics & Photonics; executive vice president and general manager of Coherent; vice president and general manager of Uniphase’s Commercial Laser Division; and vice president of R&D and chief technical officer at Optical Coating Laboratory. Before joining AIM Photonics, he was vice president of optics at ZYGO. He is the founder and chairman of Sandia Electro-Optics, an employee-owned incubator for measurement instruments for the life science and environmental sensing markets. He holds a doctoral degree in optics from the University of Rochester.