Photonics - a kind of specialty light- is used in everything from dental and medical surgery, telecommunications, building automobiles and phones, and even dismantling a nuclear power plant from a safe distance away.

Arturo Chavez, chief technology officer at NP Photonics, said photonics is "essentially light, but a very special type of light. Not like sunlight or light from a light bulb."

"About a full 10 percent of the public company revenue in the U.S. is in companies that identify themselves as being optics and photonics companies," said Thomas Koch, dean of the UA's College of Optical Sciences.

The United States has been a world leader in optics and photonics research. However, countries such as China, Japan, Korea and Germany have invested billions of their federal dollars to make their industries competitive on a global stage.

And that, according to Koch, is cutting into the United States' world market share.