Northwest on the nano trail in search of passage to prosperity

Click here to enlarge image

May 20, 2003 — The Pacific Northwest has teams of nanotech talent at Oregon and Washington universities as well as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., but experts say the region — among the hardest hit by tough economic times — lacks the nanotech center that will put it in the same league as other U.S. locations.

Click here to enlarge image

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden says a nanotech center — with dedicated facilities and staff that tie together the region’s small tech talent and potential — is high on his priority list, but he is fighting stripped-down state budgets and other leaders from “big states” who are also vying to lure nanotech industry and dollars.

Click here to enlarge image

“I’m trying to write federal legislation to make it attractive for Oregon to get funds,” said Wyden, a Democrat. “I’m using the bully pulpit and I’ll be well positioned to steer this to Oregon with federal legislation geared to states with significant unemployment, and Oregon is second.”

The senator — who is a sponsor of the Senate version of the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act passed recently by the House — also cites the contributions of regional companies, calling Intel Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. “the poster children for nanotech in Oregon.”

“I think Oregon is getting ready to pull out all of the stops for nanotechnology,” said. Wyden, who serves on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and co-leads the Congressional Forum on Technology and Innovation. “We’re gearing up for a full-court press with venture capitalists, companies, universities and professors.”

Despite major technology players such as Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft Corp. and The Boeing Co. already nudging the region’s nanotech reputation forward — as well as the major state universities and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) — the Northwest’s lack of a major nanotechnology research center is no small detail, according to experts in the region.

Don Baer, a lab fellow at PNNL, said the area already is on its way to becoming a prominent small tech spot, but it must continue to push forward with research to keep from falling behind.

“The Northwest is not necessarily thought of as a high-tech area, but look at Intel, HP, Boeing and Microsoft,” Baer said. “There’s a lot of high-tech stuff (here) and the future of a lot of it is small sizes and innovative things. At some point, nanoscience and nanotech are critical to our remaining leaders in those areas.

“Will it bring us out of the doldrums in the next year or so? No, but nanotech is having evolutionary impacts on a lot of things now.”

Baer said that while the region lacks one of the nanotech centers that have proven fruitful for Texas, New York and California, it does have the industrial clientele, interested universities, national lab and expertise that will draw nanotech cash and companies.

“We’re teaming together under a loose umbrella,” Baer said. “Schools are communicating with us and we’re working together to be in touch with those interested. That teaming is important to (the area’s) success.”

Former PNNL director Adrian Roberts, who is now senior adviser to Battelle — an Ohio-based technology developer that operates PNNL, said the Northwest does have a nanotech network despite its lack of an actual small tech center. “What the lab has been trying to build are government, university and industry partnerships,” Roberts said.

However, Roberts stressed the need for a more concrete mechanism — such as an actual nanotech facility — to bring PNNL, Oregon and Washington universities together as well as the “glue money” to make it happen.

“The idea is to create a critical mass, a reputation — a collective reputation — and be able to take that system to market,” Roberts said. “Then you get the federal money, the VCs and the companies.”

Jim Moore, a managing partner of Seattle-based Avogadro Partners — a small tech-focused venture development and investment firm — agrees the Pacific Northwest needs a formal, centralized nanotech initiative like those in other states to carve out a leadership role and reputation.

“It makes a difference to be able to have that level of focus, education and outreach from a combined R&D-outreach perspective,” Moore said. “We haven’t done as good of a job in the Northwest as other locations. The evidence is in publications, which don’t really cite much from the Northwest.”

Still, Moore contends there is plenty of potentially big small tech activity in Oregon and Washington, citing expertise at Oregon universities and PNNL, biomedical breakthroughs by the University of Washington’s Center for Nanotechnology and microtechnology applications for printing from Hewlett-Packard.

“There are undoubtedly discoveries in labs now that will be marketable within the three-to-five-year timeline,” Moore said. “Will they be significant? Not necessarily. You need the vision, capital, government, personnel, etc. But an interesting model in the region is biomedical research and now the biomedical industries that have sprung up from that research. OHSU is now seeing the benefits.”


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.