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Nano Entrepreneurship PUBLIC ACCESS

Before Nanotechnology Can Transform Industries Such as QJ Energy or Biotech, its Innovations Have to be Commercialized.

[+] Author Notes

Valerie Moore is executive director of Nano World Headquarters a center in Houston intended to support nanotechnology collaboration and to serve as an accelerator for start-up companies.

Mechanical Engineering 131(04), 27-29 (Apr 01, 2009) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2009-APR-2

Abstract

This article focuses on nanotechnological innovations that need to be commercialized before nanotechnology can transform industries, such as energy or biotech. Till date there has been a disconnection between the advances in the lab and commercialization of the nanotechnological breakthroughs. Scientific innovations, especially in fields, such as nanotechnology and clean energy technology, have several barriers within the commercialization cycle. The two biggest barriers to turning university discoveries into commercialized ideas are infrastructure and business development. Texas has the potential to build on its research strength to become the center of the nascent nanotechnology industry, and all that is needed now is an institutional structure that facilitates the collaboration of ideas leading to greater commercial opportunities. Nano World Headquarters’ (NWHQ) target tenants are the startup companies that focus on nanomaterial commercialization. NWHQ facilities and equipment are staged for growth opportunities within the nanomaterials market, starting with aerospace, defense, energy, electronics, catalysis, and consumer products.

Article

SINCE THE DISCOVERY OF THE BUCKYBALL IN 1985 and the invention of the atomic force microscope in 1986, farsighted individuals have predicted that nanotechnology will soon have a transformative effect on industry and the economy. And during the years since those first discoveries, laboratories around the world have been making breakthroughs that support that idea. I think it's certain that nanotechnology is the foundation on which a commercial revolution will be built.

But to date, there has been a disconnect between the advances in the lab and the commercialization of those breakthroughs. A great idea or even an innovative technology by itself is not enough to make a viable product.

That's why incubators that can partner with universities and research labs are critical to the development of a robust nanotechnology industry.

The potential for this industry is huge. By one estimate, the worldwide market for nanotechnology-based products will reach $25.2 billion in 2011 and over $1 trillion by 2015. The United States is expected to account for at least 25 percent of the market. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, among others, are vying for the leading role in this nascent industry and are investing billions in nanotechnology in the fields of energy, biomedicine, environment, aerospace, and information technology.

Scientists tend to have bLinders and get Locked into their technoLogy, thereby forgetting the reaLity that appLication and markets drive commerciaLization.

In order for the United States to be in the forefront of the nanotechnology revolution-to be the leading producer, not just the leading consumer- we must have the facilities in place now to develop ideas into commercialized products.

Commercializing science is like commercializing any other good or service. Once a new idea or solution to a problem is recognized, that invention's viability must be researched and protected either with patents or secrecy. That protection enables a new or existing company to spend a significant amount of time developing the invention into an innovation-that is, a new, commercialized product. A company may go through many cycles of prototypes and beta tests before an innovation is ready for the marketplace. For a coinpany to flourish, new inventions are fed through this commercialization cycle on a regular basis.

Scientific innovations, especially in fields like nanotechnology and clean energy technology, have several barriers within the commercialization cycle. The two biggest barriers to turning university discoveries into commercialized ideas are infrastructure and business development.

Infrastructure is perhaps the greatest hurdle to commercializing high-tech inventi"ons. Research and development requires laboratory space and expensive scientific equipment. In most cases, the research, because of intellectual property issues, must be done outside of university laboratories. In an effort to clear this hurdle, offcampus incubators or accelerators are being established to facilitate access to laboratory space, and universities are increasingly offering shared equipment programs for nominal user fees. But the need for these sorts of relationships is still larger than the supply.

Additionally, the new administration ' in Washington seems to be interested in realigning funding priorities to invest in America's high-tech commercialization infrastructure. Such a move could open new avenues to researchers in need of the equipment and lab space necessary to flesh out promising ideas. Scientists who are looking to commercialize a nanotechnological breakthrough should closely watch to see if any actual funding follows the rhetoric.

It's been known for some time that business development and financial support are crucial obstacles to commercializing high-tech inventions. For all the brilliance a researcher may have in nanoscale science or engineering, business acumen requires access to a whole set of other skills. Incubators and accelerators in many cities provide office space and access to services like intellectual property law, business planning, marketing, and venture capital resources.

Innovation clusters have been built in various areas to address these issues by bringing together universities, technology incubators and accelerators, companies, and government labs. Examples of successful incubators focused on nanotechnology are the North California Nanotechnology Initiative, the Nano-Network of New Mexico and the Nanotechnology Institute in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

But even with these institutions in place, the question remains: How does a scientist jump into the game? Or rather, how does a scientist move past basic research in the commercialization cycle?

The commercialization cycle can be approached from either the technological or the application angle. The technology approach is akin to asking, "I have a new nanoparticle with unique characteristics. What can I do with it?"

Conversely, the application-oriented approach starts with a problem-a device that isn't fast enough, a disease that is detected only in later, hard-~o-treat stages, a material that is not durable enough-and looks to whether a particular new nanoparticle with unique characteristics can solve the problem.

AT FIRST GLANCE THE DIFFERENCE IN THE TWO APPROACHES MAY APPEAR TO BE MERELY SEMANTIC.

That isn't the case, though. The technological angle demands that your invention be the focus. Often, scientists lose sight of their invention's suitability as the technology for an application. Of course, there are many ways to improve a product or solve a problem. By no means does each problem have only one solution. But scientists tend to have blinders and get locked into their technology, thereby forgetting the reality that application and markets drive commercialization.

The application angle, on the other hand, keeps the function and purpose at the forefront of the development. In this case, the technological details are more flexible, providing a smoother, more successful transition from invention to innovation.

In addition, scientists must be sure to keep three points in mind when trying to progress past basic research through the application angle. First, they must stay current on societal issues, and never forget to look for the role of science in developing a solution. Concerns over automobile safety, for instance, have created a market for micromechanical accelerometers, which were once just a laboratory curiosity. Second, scientists must be aware that problems have several solutions and the current solutions can always be improved upon. Finally, with a field as young and interdisciplinary as nanotechnology, collaborative innovations from scientists with varied experiences and educational backgrounds are the most likely to succeed. At this point in the game, no one discipline owns nanotechnology.

One of the places where people from various fields have come together to work on varied problems is Texas. There is a diverse powerhouse of nanotechnology groups located in -Austin, Houston, and Dallas. In these three areas, nanotechnology research and commercialization are developing solutions in fields as divergent as energy, aerospace, bioscience, and information technologies. According to Small Times magazine in 2007, Texas was ranked fifth among U.S. states. for its number of micro-nano research centers and fourth in U.S. grants for micro-nano research.

Part of the reason for this research prowess is the interest in nanoscale science at its leading universities, including Rice University, University of Houston, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas State University, Baylor College of Medicine, and various branches of the University of Texas system. In addition, several small incubators have sprung up to facilitate the commercialization of breakthroughs developed at university labs. The Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas at Austin is one example that focuses on the biosciences, renewable energy, and information technology.

Though Texas has the potential to build on its research strength to become the center of the nascent nanotechnology industry, what is needed now is an institutional structure that facilitates the collaboration of ideas leading to greater commercial opportunities. Unfortunately, up to now there has been no incubator or accelerator in Texas that can wholly meet the facility, equipment, and support needs of the nanomaterials community. That is why the Nano World Headquarters, the Houston-based organization of which I'm executive director, was chartered last year.

Houston is a logical place to set up this incubator. Not only is it the home of Rice University, where Richard Smalley performed his pioneering nanomaterials research, but the city is home to world class energy, medical, and aerospace businesses, and research institutes.

Nano World Headquarters's target tenants are startup companies focusing on nanomaterial commercialization. NWHQ facilities and equipment are staged for growth opportunities within the nanomaterials market, starting with aerospace, defense, energy, electronics, catalysis, and consumer products. These nanomaterial focus areas were chosen, rather than biotech, because their market share is forecasted to be 20 times that of biological applications in 2012. Additionally, over 80 percent of the proposed equipment used for the preparation of nanomaterials in these areas can be used for biological applications. Therefore, as the facilities grow and demand 'increases on the biological side, the additional needs for the pharmaceutical and biomedical applications of nanomaterials will be incorporated.

In addition, in planning NWHQ we have been mindful that the business facilities of an incubator can be as important as the research labs. Not only does it have a state- of-the-art convention center on site, but NW HQ is located within the WaterLights District, a newly developed economic district near the Texas Medical Center.

By bringing researchers and the business community together in suitable fac ilities, I believe we can overcome the biggest obstacles to commercializing nanotechnology. In this way, we can enable this promising-tantalizing, really-technology to reach its full potential.

Collaborative innovations from scientists with varied experiences and educational backgrounds are the most likely to succeed. At this point in the game, no one discipline owns nanotechnology.

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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