Optics, Aerospace, Defense, and More

Town of Sahuarita, AZ
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

Less than 30 years after it was incorporated, the Town of Sahuarita has become a force to be reckoned with in the State of Arizona. In the region known as ‘Optics Valley’—a fitting nickname, as there are indeed many optics companies in the area, coupled with the advanced and renowned optics research coming out of the University of Arizona—Sahuarita is just fifteen minutes by car from Tucson.

But at the time of its incorporation in 1994, the town’s population was modest, with much of its growth taking place from 2000 to the present. Two decades ago, Sahuarita had a population of 3,242; today it sits at around 35,000 and growing.

Before residential master-planned developments such as Rancho Sahuarita, Madera Highlands and upscale 55-plus Quail Creek, the area was home to the Green Valley Pecan Company, one of the largest growers in North America with over 7,000 acres. Green Valley remains known for its outstanding pecans.

Along with agriculture, the region is home to international mining companies including copper and molybdenum producer Freeport McMoRan and Asarco, which primarily mines and processes copper. To serve the mining industry and be closer to customers, world-famous heavy equipment manufacturers Caterpillar Inc. and Komatsu Limited also have proving grounds in the region.

For residents and businesses, one of the best features of the Town of Sahuarita is its location.

Directly off I-19, it is a brief drive to the Tucson International Airport, and major companies such as aerospace and defense giant Raytheon Technologies. Just half an hour by car from the U.S./Mexico border, the town’s residents include those employed in Homeland Security, including border patrol and U.S. Customs.

And with many new residential communities being built with amenities like parks, clubhouses, community pools, more and more people are calling the Town of Sahuarita home, including businesses wanting to be close to the university and Optics Valley.

A key example is SAMTEC, the Sahuarita Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center (https://sahuaritaaz.gov/685/SAMTEC), a 32,000 square foot, multi-tenant flex research and development / light manufacturing facility.

On the southwest corner of West Sahuarita Road and South La Cañada Drive, SAMTEC is less than a quarter mile west of the I-19 / Sahuarita Road interchange (Exit #75), less than half an hour from bustling downtown Tucson, and just 20 minutes from Tucson International Airport and Raytheon Technologies, making it ideal for businesses.

The genesis of SAMTEC goes back about six years, when the town submitted an Economic Development Administration grant to the federal government for the multi-tenant center, intending to attract technology-based companies. The plan worked, and SAMTEC’s tenants include PowerPhotonic Inc. and Steel Jupiter Inc., the first tenants.

The U.S. subsidiary of United Kingdom-based PowerPhotonic Ltd., PowerPhotonic Inc.’s American initiative is spearheaded by Chief Executive Officer Mark McElhinney, who was a customer for many years before joining the company in January.

A worldwide leader in the design and manufacture of high-tech free-form optics, the company makes optics using lasers instead of the traditional mechanical process where they are ground and polished.

“We laser ablate the shape in glass, and that means we can do some very complicated things with light,” says McElhinney. “The shapes that can be made using conventional processes are symmetrical—round, traditional lens shapes. We don’t have that constraint. We can basically make random shapes in glass, which means we can control light in interesting ways.”

With defense as one of its biggest markets, it made sense for PowerPhotonic Inc. to come to Arizona, be near the university, national labs, and defense companies, and lease 14,000 square feet in the town’s SAMTEC facility.

“To better serve those customers, we need to have a facility in the U.S. to interact with them, and deliver to them from a U.S. side,” says McElhinney, adding that many American clients, such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and national labs like Lawrence Livermore are in Arizona or surrounding states.

“It’s a central location in terms of our customer base. And the specific reason why we’re in Southern Arizona is because of the University of Arizona and the Optics Valley initiative that’s here. The University of Arizona is one of the two leading universities in optics in the U.S. There’s a cluster of companies we can leverage around here, and a skill base we can leverage for recruitment.”

Starting internal build-out this summer, the company plans to be up and running by October and manufacturing this year. Representing an investment of between $2 million and $3 million, the completed facility will be entirely standalone, performing design work and supporting client design requirements, and transferring those designs into their manufacturing operation.

There will also be a large clean room for manufacturing. “We will be a completely self-sufficient entity, doing everything from design prototypes to manufacturing right here in Sahuarita.”

Initially, while exploring locations across the U.S., including many in Arizona and the Tucson area, PowerPhotonic had narrowed its search to the southwest because of its customer base.

Ruling out Tucson, because of the lack of available real estate for a company of its size, PowerPhotonic learned about SAMTEC, and had a meeting in January where Sahuarita Director of Economic Development Victor Gonzalez was present.

Impressed with how engaged the town was with PowerPhotonic’s success, and the facility, McElhinney knew it would be a great fit.

Along with PowerPhotonic, another innovative business will soon call SAMTEC its home.

Committed to developing and bringing life-saving technologies to the market, Steel Jupiter Inc. has developed an innovative, proprietary coating which traps 99.99 percent of airborne viruses, including COVID-19. Efficient and cost-effective, the unique coating can enhance the performance of masks, air filtration, and respirators to safeguard public health.

“Our technology will shine a spotlight on the Town of Sahuarita and its business-friendly attributes, since what we’re producing helps keep humanity safe,” says Steel Jupiter’s Chief Operating Officer, Michael Weinberg.

Much like PowerPhotonic, Steel Jupiter was attracted to the area because of its relationship with the University of Arizona, which is performing a variety of independent tests on the company’s product and materials. “They have tremendous capabilities at the university and are a strong partner,” Weinberg says.

Other reasons include the professionalism and business-friendly approach of the town council including Gonzalez and Mayor Tom Murphy; great highway access; proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border; and the SAMTEC facility itself. “For businesses, this is a powerful combination and will bring higher paying jobs into the community.”

It will be about a year before Steel Jupiter’s product goes to market. Planning to start the hiring process later this year or early next, the company expects to have about 15 staff in 2023 in its 13,000 square-foot facility and ramp up its numbers in time.

Along with PowerPhotonic and Steel Jupiter, the Town of Sahuarita is attracting the interest of other companies for good reason, one being the University of Arizona Center for Innovation (UACI), which launched a program that provides tech start-ups with incubation services and opportunities to deploy and prove their technology in the Town of Sahuarita.

One currently sponsored tech start-up is Revolute Robotics, which has developed safe robots for inaccessible places. The robot switches between rolling on the ground and flying, which extends operating time and accessibility. “It’s a pretty fascinating technology, and we are in discussions about how this hybrid drone can have a first responder application,” says Gonzalez.

“By vesting early on in their technology we are creating a relationship that could result in the companies establishing a production facility in our community long-term.”

As the Economic Development and Public Affairs Director for Sahuarita for the past nine years and having worked in economic development for various organizations and municipalities throughout the State of Arizona for over two decades, Gonzalez is proud of the town and its many accomplishments.

Several years ago, the Town of Sahuarita went through an Economic Development Master Planning exercise, which has led to the current successes.

With businesses and residents streaming to the town, it appears that the Town’s tagline of, “You’re gonna love it here!” is right on.

“PowerPhotonic and Steel Jupiter are testaments to how we value new business locates in the town, as well as how, as an organization, we look to be creative to attract these companies,” he says. “Looking toward the future, we are open to opportunities.”

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