Research-heavy Mass. doesn’t want to be left behind in nanobusiness

BOSTON, Oct. 31, 2002 — Massachusetts, worried about competition from rival states, is stepping up its efforts to nurture the local nanotech industry by launching the region’s first small technology business initiative.

Several dozen business executives and researchers met recently with officials from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), a state-funded agency that supports technology industries. After a long discussion of the state’s strengths and weaknesses in nanotech, the group vowed to create the Massachusetts Nanotech Initiative by early next year.

“We’re always interested in something new and innovative … we always want the leading edge,” said Jeff Lockwood, director of programs at the MTC.

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Massachusetts has plenty of businesses and universities exploring nanotechnology’s potential, but no local trade association to advocate for them. In contrast, just about every other technology industry has a thriving trade group here that lobbies public officials on policy concerns and promotes the state as a place to for technology companies to do business.

The MTC hopes to repeat the success it had with MassMEDIC, a group it helped create in the mid-1990s to bolster the state’s medical device industry. Today, Massachusetts is one of the country’s leading business centers for the manufacture and sale of medical equipment.

Lockwood said the attendees agreed that the Massachusetts Nanotech Initiative (MNI) should be created by January, complete with an advisory board and Web site. In 2003, the group will begin holding regular forums around the state to showcase nanotech-related businesses and introduce nanotech professionals to each other.

The MNI also hopes to sponsor a venture capital conference in the spring, and to meet with state political leaders to show them the value in promoting the nanotech industry.

“There were lots of ideas about how to improve communication,” said Alain Hanover, president of Boston-based Navigator Technology Ventures. “A lot of the principal stakeholders were there.”

Hanover said he and Lockwood first considered a nanotech initiative last spring, when they attended a tradeshow by Swiss technology companies that featured a few nanotech businesses. The two were impressed, so they began inquiring with local small tech businesses and found strong interest in a local trade group.

Lockwood said many nanotech business executives fear that state leaders, while generally appreciative of technology’s value to the local economy, barely grasp what nanotech is –much less how to work with private industry to nurture its growth.

“Some people, quite frankly, were frustrated,” he said.

Hanover echoed those worries, saying, “I don’t think we’re on the state’s radar screen at all.”

And while Massachusetts tries to establish a nanotech initiative, other states eager to get a piece of the pie are already well ahead in their efforts to boost the industry. New York in particular has emerged as a rival: the Albany NanoTech business coalition landed a $400 million research center last summer, a stone’s throw from Massachusetts’ western border. Texas, Pennsylvania and California are also seen as competitors for government research dollars and corporate development.

“New York state has done a fantastic job in comparison,” said David Carnahan, president of Boston-based NanoLab Inc. “They have really pulled it all together.”

Those are painful words to Massachusetts’ economic development officials because there is little doubt that at the moment the state still has an edge over New York. Universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University are leading centers of nanotech research, and a diverse range of businesses — from biotech to chip makers to telecommunications — are incorporating nanotech into their operations.

“The core activity is already here,” Lockwood said.

Carnahan did not attend the MNI organizational meeting but still supports the idea. While most nanotech companies here have a strong “intellectual network” to let them chat among colleagues, he said, “you need to have a place where companies can go to access things beyond their reach.”

Another crucial question for the MNI: Who will pay for it? While the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative can provide some early financial support, the state expects to be crunched for cash in 2003 and several years beyond, leaving it with little money left over for any new programs. Ultimately, Lockwood and Hanover say, university and business sponsors will need to contribute financial support and assume responsibility for the program themselves if the industry blossoms.


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