Measuring ‘hive’ or marketing jive: Nanotools study greater than sum?

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Nov. 4, 2003 — A recent market study that predicts 2004 should be a good year for nanotechnology toolmakers may not be as noteworthy as the motive behind the study, itself — discovering nanotech’s “hive intelligence.”

To wrap your antennae around that buzzphrase, think of the small tech sector as an ant farm. Input some anonymous, thus possibly more frank, data about individual workers’ strengths, weaknesses and relationships, and the entire industry moves up the intelligence food chain.

That’s the theory, anyway.

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A collaboration between New York-based Lux Capital and TheInfoPro Inc. (TIP), a market research firm in Connecticut, the partners conducted their “Semiconductor Capital Equipment Metrology and Nanotech Tools Study” to advance the market for nanotech tools by trying to give buyers and sellers more useful knowledge about each other.

Stephen Waite, TIP’s chief knowledge officer, said the study will be updated every six months to provide rapid, independent feedback to toolmakers and tool purchasers.

But is the “hive” angle just marketing jive? Well, there is some science behind it. Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have looked at how the behavior of bees and ants can be adapted to business. Before leaving to found a consulting firm, Sante Fe scientist Eric Bonabeau investigated such “swarm intelligence” as how an ant colony collectively finds the nearest food source. Answer: Ants that come across edibles leave anonymous messages in the form of scent trails.

Anonymous information is similarly central to the nanotool study’s methodology. Specific survey results from participating tool-buying companies — which included Intel Corp., Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Motorola Inc., Hewlett-Packard, DuPont and Texas Instruments Inc. — were kept confidential to encourage the fullest disclosure and widest participation. In that way, Waite said, collective knowledge could flow throughout the tools market. Or at least to companies willing to buy the $12,500 report.

The approach aims to boost the market’s self-knowledge by collecting customers’ anonymous ratings of toolmakers’ performance on 12 different metrics. The report also features direct commentary from nanotech research directors like this one: “Veeco has the best products on the market … (but) we want more equipment for the dollar.” Buyers may find value in toolmakers’ rankings on customer service and sales support, but the study’s producers also believe the findings may help vendors understand where they need to improve.

Conversely, toolmakers may gain a clearer sense of the market from researchers’ confidential comments on what features they’re looking for in various products. For example, “We need better signal processing and software,” one researcher told the survey.

Even in today’s ostensibly customer-focused business climate, “It’s not surprising to find companies that don’t listen to their customers,” said Waite, author of “Quantum Investing,” a book published in 2002. “We’re trying to provide a bridge between the customers and the companies that will provide a foundation on which to build better tools.”

JoAnne Feeney, senior business strategist at Albany NanoTech, said the value of information in the new TIP/Lux report is contingent on the firms’ willingness to make full and unbiased disclosures. Companies with closely guarded plans and proprietary technologies “will be more likely to share information once they see its value in improving market dynamics and once any concerns over confidentiality are assuaged,” Feeney said.

Tim Harper, chief executive of nanotech consulting firm Cientifica, said such a broad study (which looked at more than 40 different types of instruments) can be “so vague as to be meaningless.” And the survey methodology tends to produce skewed results. “A lot of market research involves phoning X people and asking, ‘How many BMWs would you like to buy this year?’ and then concluding that the worldwide market for BMWs is a big number,” he said.

Ultimately the market will decide how to value TheInfoPro/Lux approach. In the meantime, Waite sees the advance of such tools as critical to the speedy development of commercial nanotech products.

“New nanotools that can do things like three-dimensional imaging in liquids are like a dimmer switch (for nanotech commercialization),” Waite said. “As they improve, researchers will increasingly be able to better see how materials behave on the molecular level.”

Chris Keimel, a researcher surveyed while at Princeton’s Nanostructures Lab, said that communication in the tools market that leads to product innovation is vital for both sellers and buyers. He noted, for example, how Chicago-based NanoInk’s dip pen lithography is essentially an extension of an atomic force microscope. Keimel, now with General Electric’s research center, added that new tools may enable entirely new products, which in turn create markets for the tools themselves.


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