NEW YORK—Focusing on the small things presents big challenges for the emerging field of nanotechnology.
While applications for the technology are wide open and venture capital dollars are readily available—many of the companies assembled at the NanoBusiness Conference 2005, a trade show held here wherein nanotechnologists are rubbing elbows with each other and Wall Street types—the challenges are great for the industry, which is still in its infancy.
Nanotechnology, which is broadly defined as working with materials on a sub-100 nanometer scale, is expected to yield advances in semiconductors—where new materials and manufacturing techniques are expected by many to augment and eventually replace todays silicon-based manufacturing technologies, which face scientific and economic roadblocks—and medicine in the next three to five years, speakers on the confabs opening day said.
But many of the industrys challenges are familiar to anyone who has followed the story of Silicon Valley.
Start-up companies form around an idea, secure funding and at times struggle to put out a product.
Many fail, while some of the more successful ones get bought out. Only a few grow into relative giants in their field.
Barry Weinbaum, CEO of NanoOpto Corp., a 35-employee optical networking company based in Somerset, N.J., said his company had to reinvent itself following the telecom markets bust of 2001.
As its customers were going out of business or changing their plans, the company had to work to spread its technology across several new markets.
It now sells optical components for digital cameras, computer optical drives and projection displays, in addition to optical communications.
Weinbaum declined to discuss how much revenue his company takes in, however.
Aside from semiconductors, where nanotechnology is expected to provide a direct benefit to businesses by extending advances in chips and storage, health care is another potentially large market.
It can be used in the energy sector to enhance products such as batteries or solar panels, the speakers said.
One nanotechnology company, Finetex Technology Inc., is working on nanocoatings and nanofibers that can be used to make better air filters as well as more durable clothing.
Down the road, the company sees itself moving into health care products, and eventually semiconductors.
The fledgling space has several supporters in the United States, ranging from deep-pocketed venture capitalists such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson, of Menlo Park, Calif., to companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co.
The industry can even count a couple of U.S. senators, including Oregons Sen. Ron Wyden, among its supporters.
Wyden, the senior senator from Oregon, kicked off the Nanobusiness 2005 conference, here, with a keynote address charge to attendees, who include nanotechnology company executives, researchers and others, not to allow the United States to fall behind in the emerging field.
Wyden, a co-sponsor of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, a bill that aims to provide $3.7 billion funding for Nanotechnology Research and Development in the United States, warned that it will take considerable effort to keep the industry rolling forward in the U.S. over the next few years.
Wyden is working to keep nanotechnology in front of Washingtons agenda, he said, and to protect it from measures he believes could harm it, such as export controls. But he asked a few things from business and political leaders, both on state and federal levels, to help keep things moving.
Among the three things he sees as essential for U.S. nanotechnology leadership are free and open markets, the expanding education to encourage larger numbers of engineers and scientists to participate in the field, as well as a general willingness to get out ahead—the least of his worries about those in attendance.
Wyden said that continuing to offer the field free and open markets are paramount. The Senator on Monday sent a letter to Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of commerce, urging him to resist putting export controls on nanotechnology.
"I dont think anything would chill investment in American nanotechnology faster than putting in place export control," Wyden said. Its a "prescription for our country to lose jobs."
But despite nanotechnologys potential to create new products, there may not be enough home-grown enough engineers and scientists to work in the field in the United States.
Thus Wyden said hes been working with Margaret Spellings, the U.S. secretary of education, in an effort to use of the so-called Title IX law, which states that no person in the United States shall be excluded from participation in any educational program on the basis of sex, to promote greater opportunities for women in science and engineering.
"We are urging federal government to use it as a new lever for women to become engineers and scientists and do the type of work to help companies like yours," he said.
"Right now were writing off a substantial portion of population. The question is, are we serious about getting them trained and ready and prepped for global markets?"
There are other ways for nanotechnology to be hamstrung, should it gain a bad reputation.
Thus the Nanotechnology Act includes a provision for the creating of an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, which will communicate to the public different uses for the technology and get in front of ethical questions that are sure to develop, Wyden said.
"People are just getting familiar with this sector. If the first thing they learn about is…from picking up a novel and hearing people mutating into green goo and the like, thats not going to be very encouraging for development you all want," he said.