Officially, war kills nano summit; but some suspect it went AWOL

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April 11, 2003 — The World Nanotechnology Summit did not take place this week at the Hilton New York.


It did not feature 43 of the world’s top nanotechnology leaders as speakers. It did not give venture capitalists, lawyers and executives the opportunity to “hear about the latest developments worldwide and to make important new contacts,” as its Web site promised.

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Officially, it was postponed because speakers were afraid to travel during the war in Iraq, its organizers say. But as calls go unanswered and sponsors’ refunds fail to arrive, some of those who signed up to attend wonder whether the World Nanotechnology Summit had never existed in the first place.


Its London-based organizers — a group known as Emerging Technologies Conferences — collected at least tens of thousands of dollars in attendance, travel and accommodations fees, according to some of the event’s speakers and sponsors. If the organizers’ published attendance figures of 400 delegates are correct, that total could be much more.


Some are inclined to give the organizers the benefit of the doubt and figure they just couldn’t generate enough interest. “My opinion is that they meant well but simply could not pull off a profitable event,” said Bo Varga, a partner with the Strategic Synergy Group and a scheduled event speaker, in an e-mail interview.


Others pose another possibility. “If this was a scam, it was done very professionally,” said Vic Kley, president of General Nanotechnology.  Regardless of whether this was simply a failed conference or something else, “I don’t view this as surprising for an emerging industry,” said Glenn Fishbine, author of “The Investor’s Guide to Nanotechnology and Micromachines.” “Everybody’s an expert and there’s always a small percentage of bad people who promote themselves.”


The nanotech community might be a particularly attractive target to these “bad people” because it has been so effective at generating buzz and attracting cash. “With those dynamics they need to be more careful and frankly more cynical,” Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, said in an e-mail interview. “There are now nanotech shows every week and people should be careful to go with a known commodity.”


The advice is particularly appropriate now that Emerging Technologies has seemingly dropped off the map, ignoring voice mail and e-mail messages from speakers and sponsors for the past two and a half weeks. Moreover, the Hilton New York, where organizers claimed the summit would be held, said the event had never been scheduled.


“At no time had this meeting or convention been booked,” said Hilton spokesman Sam Grabush. “There were no leads, nothing. We have not been associated with it.”


In March, the chief conference organizer, Michael A. Williams, told some participants by e-mail that the Hilton’s denial is part of a plan to keep the summit’s location secret for security reasons — an assertion that the Hilton spokesman said is not true. In one e-mail to a would-be attendee, Williams wrote that the summit had attracted “a lot of interest from groups that hold anti-nanotech views,” and that he had hired a “large team of ex-military security staff” to ensure safety. When the summit was postponed on March 21, Williams e-mailed participants that they could have their money back or apply it toward the rescheduled event.


Some immediately took him up on it. Summit sponsor Antenna Group Inc. demanded a full refund on March 21. Emerging Technologies, they said, promised the refund would be sent “first thing.”  The New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium (NJNC)  also asked for a full refund. The money has yet to arrive, the groups said.


Kley went a step further. Although the organizers promised to provide him with free travel and accommodations, he paid them for a $255 plane ticket so his wife could accompany him to New York. In late March, he filed a criminal complaint against the summit’s organizers after they failed to provide either a ticket or a refund. “If you take money for something, you either give the ‘something’ or you give the money back,” Kley said.


Jay Adkisson, a lawyer and financial adviser who runs the Quatloos! Web site, an online cyber-museum of scams and frauds, said he had never heard of a scam involving a fake conference. But he added that in his experience, advance-fee is the second most popular type of financial fraud behind stock fraud.


“The deal is they’re going to provide some service to you. You’re going to pay them up front. When the time comes for them to perform, they may or may not show up.”


Adkisson said there are two general types of advance fee fraud — one big deal or lots of little deals. After a big deal, it’s easier for the culprits to get away but the victim is more likely to pursue. In the case of lots of little deals, he said, most of the time the victims just write off the loss and get on with their lives. “Each person only loses a thousand dollars and won’t complain.”


Emerging Technologies, which used a pair of virtual London addresses and a mobile phone, began organizing the event as early as September, when Williams contacted potential speakers by e-mail. He offered them free airfare and hotel accommodations and the opportunity to deliver a keynote address at the summit.


Industry veterans say that despite the organizers’ sudden appearance on the nano scene, the group made a solid impression.


“There was nothing that would make you suspicious,” said Tim Harper, chief executive of nanotech business research firm CMP Cientifica, recalling his initial contact with Emerging Technologies.


“Everything was on the up-and-up in my dealings,” said Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital, an investment firm specializing in nanotechnology.


The list of speakers eventually recruited reads like a who’s who of the nanotech set. The summit’s home page highlighted keynote speakers Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute, Meyya Meyyappan of NASA Ames Research Center, Rick Snyder of Ardesta LLC (Small Times’ parent company), Charles Harris of Harris & Harris, Margaret Blohm of GE Corporate R&D, Francesco De Rubertis of Index Ventures, Gerry McGrory of Cross Atlantic Capital Partners, Om Nalamasu of New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium, as well as Wolfe and Harper.


The organizers were similarly effective in recruiting paying sponsors. Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, Williams contacted David Reisner at Inframat Corp.


“I remember saying to him, ‘You guys came out the blue here. Where did you come from?'” He recalled Williams saying Emerging Technologies was in stealth mode. Reisner signed on for a paid sponsorship but declined to cite the amount.


In January and February, Emerging Technologies secured paid sponsorships from the NJNC and Antenna Group. “It was a very typical type of contact from event organizers like this,” said Ellery Buchanan, the NJNC’s executive vice president. “There was nothing there to create suspicion.” Antenna Group is Small Times’ public relations firm, although Small Times was not a summit sponsor.


The speed with which the event was organized isn’t unusual, according to Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management, who said that conferences today are often organized quickly to take advantage of new opportunities. Hacker said he has heard of “two or three” conferences being canceled due to security concerns over the war in Iraq, but it is not an industry trend. In 2001, Small Times Media canceled a trade show scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., the week after Sept. 11.


According to Hacker, Emerging Technologies also followed industry protocols in sending out immediate cancellation notices, but he added that it might be specious if requested refunds did not arrive within a week or two. “Nothing sends up any particular red flags,” he said, “except that the hotel doesn’t know anything about it. That certainly is very curious.”


Buchanan of the NJNC said Emerging Technologies said they were sold out six or eight weeks ago but they “never provided the attendee list.” Access to the list was part of the sponsorship deal, he said.


In early February Varga, of Strategic Synergy Group, asked Williams why the Hilton didn’t know about the event and demanded he show proof of his plane tickets and hotel reservations. Other speakers began making similar inquiries. “He said your tickets are being FedExed on March 7 by a woman named Lindsey,” Varga said. They never arrived.


According to e-mail from the organizers, people signed up in droves to attend at prices ranging from a little over $1,000 to more than $2,000 apiece. In March, the summit’s Web site claimed more than 400 people had registered. In one e-mail, Williams claimed more than 450. However, an independent confirmation of attendance figures was not available and industry insiders suggest the conference may have had trouble attracting paying delegates.


Those who paid for anything through Acteva, a third-party facilitator of online event registrations, have been issued refunds, according to Arvind Gourishankar, vice president of corporate development. He declined to say how many people registered through his site and acknowledged that his company is owed money by the conference organizers.


For those who sent checks directly to Emerging Technologies or wired funds to its Silicon Valley Bank account, it’s a waiting game — for a check in the mail or for information about a rescheduled event.


Michael Williams assured Small Times by e-mail on March 25 that the summit “will definitely be happening, it’s just a question of when. Once the world is more peaceful again we will fix a date and put all of our resources into building a great event on the rescheduled date.”


Williams wrote that he would call Small Times later that day. He never did. Eight subsequent calls and six e-mails to Williams and the staff of Emerging Technologies were not answered.


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