By John Carroll
Small Times Correspondent

DALLAS, Jan. 18, 2002 — Can nanotechnology researchers at U.S. universities win over the venture capital crowd?

High-profile representatives of both camps turned out at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) on Thursday night. And while they both agreed that there was much keeping them apart, there were some good reasons to cautiously edge closer together.

“In the last two to three years there have been more people coming out of labs and starting a company than I’ve ever seen before,” said Wu-Fu Chen, who gained a reputation in the ’90s as the man with the Midas touch when it came to starting, and selling, telecom companies. And while nanotechnology is a “great promising


“The key thing is to
get this technology
out of the universities
in such a way that it
can be used by industry.”

Alan MacDiarmid
Nobel laureate
technology,” he adds, “it’s very hard to invest in this great, giant potential without seeing a return.”

“I very strongly agree with Wu-Fu’s comments,” responded Alan MacDiarmid, who collected the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2000 for his work on synthetic polymers. Now an adviser to UTD’s ambitious NanoTech Institute, MacDiarmid was quick to concede that “there’s an enormous gap in technology transfers between universities and business.”

University faculties have traditionally been too “naive” about basic business practices, like protecting intellectual property, and that has to change quickly, MacDiarmid added.

“There’s a huge amount of information” ready for commercialization, said the Nobel laureate. But universities have been reluctant to act as a catalyst. Universities “have to put a much greater emphasis on partnering (with private business) so that it’s win-win all around. The key thing is to get this technology out of the universities in such a way that it can be used by industry.”

The exchange came during a meeting of the minds sponsored by the MIT Enterprise Forum. MacDiarmid, a chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has been focusing much of his research on carbon nanotubes, which he believes will be one of the most fruitful in terms of initial commercial applications. And he championed the work of Ray Baughman, who heads UTD’s NanoTech Institute, for working with Rice University’s pioneering crew of nanotube researchers.

MacDiarmid also believes that further work investigating conducting polymers — focusing on electronic applications “that can be tied to tiny nanofibers” — also offers some bright prospects for early commercialization.

That may still be too far down the timeline for Chen, the Chinese-born entrepreneur with a string of highly successful telecom startups under his belt. Chen made hundreds of millions of dollars by founding and selling such upstarts as Communications Equipment Corp., which created integrated voice, data and video networks. In the mid-’90s he started and quickly profited from the sale of Ardent Networks. But in the last few years, Chen’s reputation for turning startups into overnight fortunes has waned as the telecom sector has faded.

Now Chen has turned to the incubation business. And he’s sticking to the field he’s most familiar with, looking to back embryonic wireless ventures with promising technologies and bright financial futures.

When the potential rewards look to be far off in the future, he adds, it’s hard for even a seed capitalist like himself to make the leap of faith necessary to invest in nanotech startups.

“Whenever I start a company I ask, where is the market? Where are the customers?” Chen said.

That’s a question that he believes nanotechnology has left largely unanswered.

Related Story: Nobel laureate wants to bring brightest to NanoTech Institute


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