By Teri Sprackland
Small Times Correspondent
DENVER, April 29, 2002 — Nanotechnology could find a happy home in Colorado — just as soon as the state’s government figures out what it is, according to participants at the Rocky Mountain NanoBusiness 2002 conference held here last week.
“One of the ways we can attract nanotechnology is a certain level of state funding and commitment,” said Rahmat Shoureshi, director of the office of technology transfer at the Colorado School of Mines. “You’ve got to jump-start it; it doesn’t happen by itself.”
Actually, it’s not just government that needs an education in nanotechnology’s potential. The state has the basic components to stake a claim in the future of small technology, but there’s a lot of work to do before Colorado catches up to early adopters such as New York, California, Massachusetts or Texas. The state’s universities have a great batting average in getting federal funds to support nanotechnology-related research. It has a well-established semiconductor industry in Colorado Springs and a small but solid venture capital community, which has in the past supported early-stage technology projects.
Colorado just hasn’t yet put the pieces together.
About 200 participants attended the conference, organized by the NanoBusiness Alliance, a nascent trade group that hopes to create “a collective voice for the emerging small tech industry.” The group has just established a Colorado chapter, run by Griffith Kundahl, a Denver business and technology lawyer.
Just like the industry itself, Colorado nanotechnology companies span the range of technical possibilities, from semiconductor physics to bioengineering to chemical engineering. Most are nowhere near bringing a product to market.
Wednesday’s meeting featured an array of potential technologies in search of lucrative problems to solve. Conspicuously absent, however, were any official state representatives.
Colorado’s investment community is still reeling from losses in telecom companies as well as dot-com failures. However, the small amounts needed for seed financing could lure investors out of the woodwork, according to Lee Reichert, partner in the Denver law firm of Kamlet Shepherd Reichert & Maes. “Ninety percent of VC funding in nanotechnology during this first quarter has been seed money, $5 million or less. But there are still a lot of dollars on the sidelines of the VC community,” Reichert said.
Semiconductors could lead the way toward a homegrown nanobusiness in Colorado. Semiconductor designs are already deep into submicron territory, and engineers are facing serious design constraints in dealing with electron behavior at that size. Some larger companies are putting research money into building electronic components from the nanoscale up, rather than the submicron level down. That opens the door to inventors who could pair up with corporate investors, although lawyers at the conference warned about pitfalls in patent and copyright protection.
“The semiconductor industry has its act together and knows it’s going to have to be in nanotechnology eventually,” said keynote speaker James Murday, director of the national Nanotechnology Coordinating Office and head of the chemistry division of the Naval Research Laboratory.
“With new fabs expected to cost $10 billion by the end of the decade, only to be outmoded in a year or two, the concern is that progress in semiconductors will be slowed not by the microscopic size problems but by the cost of manufacturing,” Murday said. The industry-supported Semiconductor Research Corp. (SRC) is creating its nanotech wish list.
Murday believes that eventually, logic chips such as field-effect transistors (FETs) could be replaced by carbon nanotubes, but “it is going to be a while before carbon nanotubes are functioning elements in our computers.”
Colorado must have a spectrum of finance options, including vital access to seed capital, in order to create a nanofriendly environment, according to Edward Moran, director of product innovation at Deloitte & Touche in New York. “You need to create a connected entrepreneurial community, including effective technology transfers and trade groups,” Moran said. “It’s still very early in the game, and Colorado could be a very vibrant place for nanotechnology.”
Colorado companies have received money from a variety of sources — angel investors, government grants and even some traditional venture capital. For example, ZettaCore Inc., a Denver company working on molecular-based memory chips, recently received its first round of financing for an undisclosed amount from venture capitalists Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
ALD NanoSolutions Inc., in Westminster, Colo., is a startup that is depending on federal grants to develop its technology, an atomic layer deposition process developed at the University of Colorado. Its president and co-founder, Karen Buechler, said that the process can lay down a uniform coating 1 angstrom thick, but the company has yet to focus on a specific product application to use as a prototype.