Cresanti leads nano commercialization roundtable

By Patti Glaza, Small Times staff

Apr. 6, 2007 — Many players have a vested interest in understanding the impact of barriers to commercializing nanotechnology. The US government, having invested several billion dollars in research and development since the start of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, is no exception.

On April 3, 2007, Small Times was invited to observe the first in a series of roundtable discussions initiated by a Department of Commerce project and held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon. The Department of Commerce is working with the University of Illinois-Springfield to develop a report intended to help policymakers ensure that the full potential of nanotechnologies can be realized.

The issues and concerns raised during the meeting will inform this report; they point to serious challenges that many players in our ecosystem are facing today. Participants included representatives from Fortune 500 companies (HP, Intel), start-ups (AcryMed, Nantero, Voxtel), tool suppliers (FEI), academia and national labs (Oregon State, University of Oregon, PNNL), investment firms (OVP, Northwest Technology Ventures, Guggenheim), and state and federal government (US Senate, US Dept. of Commerce, Oregon Economic and Community Development Dept.). In addition to participating, a key organizer of the roundtable was Skip Rung from Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI ), an organization aiming to help break down the barriers identified.

The discussion was initiated by the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Photo: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry)

Although the meeting was short, Under Secretary for Technology at the US Department of Commerce, Robert Cresanti, did an impressive job of using the time effectively. Senator Ron Wyden, a critical supporter of nanotechnology on the Hill, participated in the first part of the session. Key issues from the meeting were:

Infrastructure investment. Unlike Internet companies, nanotechnology developers cannot work out of their garages. Expensive equipment and sophisticated environments are required for conducting nanotech research and product development. Venture capitalists don’t like to put their money into fixed equipment, and the cost of procuring some of the necessary tools reaches far beyond the typical small-business bank loan. Participants stated clearly that the government has an important role in continuing to invest in, and make available to industry, advanced technology resource labs. To keep some high-volume manufacturing in the U.S., this investment will be critical as the technologies move into mass production.

Intellectual property protection. Start-ups expressed frustration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Long waits for patent award decisions make it difficult for them to get venture funding and to secure corporate partners. In response, Cresanti noted that the issue was well understood at the highest levels, but that the training and retention of qualified patent examiners was proving to be extremely difficult. Once trained, nano patent examiners are able to secure private industry jobs at three times the salary provided by the USPTO, which is limited in its ability to counter-offer due to strong union forces.

Technology transfer. How to leverage the volume of intellectual property that is being generated in the universities and government-funded laboratories was a major concern of the US Dept. of Commerce, as much of the federal funding goes to early-stage research. Suggestions on improving technology transfer included investing in experienced technology transfer agents that can identify opportunities, ease the time burden for inventors to protect their research, and simplify licensing. The ability of Stanford University’s tech transfer office to complete a licensing deal in two hours was noted as a ‘best case’ example, in addition to the Chinese giving their researchers ready access to top patent attorneys.

Workforce. Concern regarding qualified labor was echoed by almost all industry participants, both as an immediate issue today and a bigger issue for tomorrow. The ability to motivate and incent upcoming generations to study math, science, and engineering will be critical to keeping nanotechnology research and industry on US soil. A popular idea is the need to find a nanotechnology-focused goal able to fire imaginations as did the 1960s space race. Paul Burrows from PNNL says the late Dr. Richard Smalley already identified that goal: meeting the not-so-distant energy crisis.

Environment, health, and safety. These concerns centered mainly on how to educate the public on the true benefits and risks of technology, and the ability of federal regulatory bodies (e.g., EPA and FDA) to work appropriately. The lack of a coordinated industry response to the barrage of misinformation in the mass media was noted as a problem. Start-up executives expressed worry about poorly informed regulations and unnecessary reporting/study hurdles.

Continued government support. As Sam Angelos from Hewlett-Packard so appropriately stated, nano development is a marathon, not a sprint. There is worry that government monetary support will be derailed due because of the long gestation period to demonstrate ROI, in addition to the potential environment, health, and safety fallout. With much of the rest of the world ramping up investment in nanotechnology, there is fear that the US will fall behind if it does not continue to prioritize resources for nanotechnology research and commercialization.

Throughout the discussion, panelist after panelist made an extremely important point: Public-private partnerships can make a significant economic development impact on regional communities. Songs of praise for ONAMI and its ability to help facilitate solving of immediate challenges to commercializing micro and nanotechnologies were loud and clear.

As details from the meeting are made public, Small Times will provide links to relevant resources.


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