Small tech’s voice heard amid clamor of competing agendas

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Feb. 4, 2003 — Recently in Davos, Switzerland, loud beats could be heard from two drums: the Iraq war drums and the economic doldrums.

But amid the din of discussion and dissent at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, a small tech leader and advocate quietly worked the crowd to make the emerging industry’s voice heard — and hopes the message resonates at future gatherings.

“I think it was certainly a unique opportunity and I took advantage of all of the meetings I could,” said Ken Gabriel, co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer of Pittsburgh-based Akustica Inc., which is developing acoustic MEMS-based devices that serve as microphones and speakers for hearing aids, mobile phones and other consumer electronics. He also is co-founder and executive director of the MEMS Industry Group.

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“Overall I found it incredibly worthwhile to be there and primarily for the mix of people that are there. … I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was influenced by the conference as well.”

Gabriel was one of 40 executives selected by the independent, nonprofit foundation to serve as Technology Pioneers for 2003, which recognizes the individuals and their companies for successful technological innovation, potential impact on business and society, market growth and sustainability, proof of concept and leadership. All were invited to the annual meeting, but Gabriel said only about half attended as part of the delegation of more than 2,000 global business, government and religious leaders.

Other small tech executives named pioneers were Rolf Sammler, chief executive of Impella Cardiotechnik AG of Germany; Howard Birndorf, chairman and CEO of California-based Nanogen Inc., and Jeff Jacobsen, former chief executive of California-based Alien Technology.

Although the WEF invited the pioneers to discuss their innovations as well as potential societal effects, Gabriel said they gave no presentations to the larger group. He said the pioneers spent a good deal of time talking to each other, but he suggested that the forum provide the pioneers a chance to lead panels or presentations at future meetings.

Small tech did make its way onto the meeting’s agenda. A session devoted to nanotechnology explored the science’s practical applications and the implications for existing technologies.

Nanotech also played a supporting role in a rival summit held last week in Brazil. The World Social Forum, which focuses on such issues as peace, poverty and participative democracy, drew as many as 100,000 people from 150 nations.

Canada-based advocacy organization ETC Group unveiled a report about nanotech Wednesday at the Brazil conference. The document calls for a moratorium on nano R&D, and creation of an international forum for evaluating new technologies — underscoring ETC’s concerns about nano’s effect on the environment as well as the economies of developing nations.

Still, emerging technology was overshadowed in Davos by discussions about the seemingly inevitable war in Iraq and slumping global economy — two popular topics among protesters outside the conference as well.

About 2,000 demonstrators marched outside the sealed-off ski resort where the meeting was held, chanting messages against war and world trade. Many more reportedly were turned away at police checkpoints set up at train stations on the route to Davos. Police used water cannons and tear gas on demonstrators who blocked roads and rails to protest the security checks.

Gabriel said the atmosphere inside certainly was more civil, but disagreements were common among participants. Many speakers chided the United States for its hard-line stance on Iraq. Sessions also dealt with diverging ways to restore public confidence in corporations and financial markets.

He said discord wouldn’t be his lasting impression of the conference. Although emerging technology took a backseat to political and financial concerns this year, he understands more clearly the connections among them. He said one speaker, Jordan’s King Abdullah, best summed up the sentiment: “Everything is indivisibly connected.”

“We can’t have technology advances without influencing the economy … or society,” Gabriel said. “It’s all part of the mix. The world is much too small for any one part to ignore the others.”

In his case, he made small tech connections where he could. One of his most interesting — albeit brief — encounters was with a Saudi Arabian official involved in higher education programs. Gabriel said they met while walking between events, so he pulled out a prototype of Akustica’s chip-based microphone.

“I showed him our 64-membrane microphones. … He was stunned by the number of mechanical devices (on it),” Gabriel said.

“He walked away thinking about MEMS.”


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