Reality is the concept that governs the new nanobusiness world

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NEW YORK, June 6, 2003 — Did you know that 13 of the top 30 Dow component companies discuss nanotechnology on their Web sites?

That’s the count according to Stephen Waite, author of “Quantum Investing” and chief knowledge officer of TheInfoPro Inc., a market research firm. He’s also counting on the nanotechnology revolution to drive a major wave of change over the next decade, just as Newtonian physics lit the fires of the industrial revolution.

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In the meantime, “this year’s about who’s getting real,” said Jim Hurd, founder of the NanoScience Exchange in Silicon Valley, over lunch recently at New York’s Marriott Financial Center.

The scene — the NanoBusiness Alliance’s Second Annual NanoBusiness Conference — featured very real industrial giants, including General Electric Co., DaimlerChrysler  and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Other perspectives from the U.S. Commerce Department, Lux Capital,  the National Cancer Institute and Cientifica Ltd. cast the state of the sector in tangible terms.

Among them: Lux’s Josh Wolfe predicting that Nanosys Inc., in which Lux recently invested, or Nano-Tex LLC will become the first nanotech IPOs in 2005. On the downside, he expects that most small tech companies in business today won’t be around in five years, victims of the “creative destruction” of economic forces.

Attendees were businesslike. New players such as the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium and older ones such as Inframat Inc. and Nanofilm Inc. were all actively looking for dance partners and deals to do.

Ulf Koenig, DaimlerChrylser’s senior manager of devices and processes, described how small tech was insinuating itself into every sector of automotive design, from tires sealed more effectively with InMat Inc.’s  nanoclay composites and monitored for air pressure by MEMS sensors, to windows made of polycarbonate nanomaterials that are lighter and stronger than glass.

He said that nanotechnology is already making its way into the automakers’ mass-production processes, where some of the core benefits will be ecological — using fewer toxic materials and less fuel during manufacturing.

Scott Donnelly, senior vice president of General Electric Global Research, said that small tech will have a “pervasive impact” on the company’s future products, including aircraft engines, plastics, power systems, medical imaging equipment and lighting. “With opportunities in so many areas,” Donnelly said, “the challenge is choosing what to focus on.”

For Sharon Smith, director of technology at Lockheed Martin, small tech is working its way into applications on submarines and surface ships, and for systems that work in hostile environments like outer space. Smith noted that in many of the applications Lockheed is working on, reliability is critical. “It has to work the first time, and every time.”

She cited four focus areas:

  • New materials for lighter, smaller and stronger satellites and aircraft, especially unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator;
  • Sensors embedded in military or aerospace hardware to detect early failure;
  • Better propellant materials for missiles and rockets;
  • High performance electronic and photonic devices, including better displays and data storage.

The National Cancer Institute is testing multifunctional nanoparticles that can seek out cancer cells, light up when they find them and deliver drugs directly. Ed Monachino, the NCI’s assistant director for technology, said that the nanoparticle approach could compress steps in typical cancer treatment such as biopsies, lab work and chemotherapy into one system. Monachino noted that the hardest part of the process is developing the biomarkers that will help the nanoparticles latch onto specific cancer cells.

In the end, Cientifica founder Tim Harper — whose consulting practice is now attracting Fortune 500 companies that had been sitting on nanotech’s sidelines most of last year — was still quick with a hype-busting quip.

He defined the “bananosecond” as the time between opening your mouth about nanotechnology and falling flat on your face. He also identified a few buzzwords nano-pundits should learn to avoid. Among them: “nanotechnology industry” (an “illusion,” in Harper’s view, though the “potential influence of nanotechnology on existing and new markets is immense”); and “trillion-dollar market” (an oft-cited figure from the National Science Foundation on the value of all nano-related business by 2015, equally specious and meaningless in Harper’s opinion.)

Finally, Cientifica co-founder and chief information architect Paul Holister pointed out that few people realize that nanomaterials such as nanofibers and multiwall carbon nanotubes are already in wide industrial use. According to Hollister, the editor of the company’s TNT newsletter, carbon nanofibers can be found in 60 percent of lithium-ion batteries.

Carbon nanofibers, which Holister concedes “may be borderline nano, but so what,” and multiwall carbon nanotubes are being produced by the ton to aid in the application of paint to automobiles. When embedded in plastic body parts, the nanomaterials make the surface electrically conducting, attracting paint particles more efficiently and eliminating the need for a primer coat. Holister cited Hyperion Catalysis International Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., as one of the leading companies in nano-powered electrostatic painting.


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