In topsy-turvy nano, ‘crackpots’ seem downright respectable

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SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 14, 2003 — So, what’s a nice nanotech entrepreneur like James Clements doing in a place like this?

The founder of Nanosciences Inc., a man with impeccable business credentials, has apparently fallen in with a bad crowd, hanging out here with a bunch of “crackpot” scientists at last weekend’s 11th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.

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That’s the sort of reaction Clements almost universally received from fellow nanotechnology business people when he told them he planned to attend this gathering. Foresight is a nonprofit collection of folks who have been dreaming for decades of a nanotechnology that has yet to exist. It’s the one envisioned in 1986 by Eric Drexler in “Engines of Creation,” of molecular assemblers that can rearrange atoms into any way permitted by the laws of physics, the nanotechnology that existed in theory before the “n” word morphed into sunscreen, pants and “nanobusiness.”

“Crackpots,” Clements said, and “too SciFi,” were the comments he kept getting from other nanotech entrepreneurs. “I still find it absolutely amazing that one early-adoption population considers another early adoption population a bit too ‘out there.’ “

“Out there,” might have described Foresight 11 years ago, when the group first got together and began to ponder issues like how to regulate or consider the societal and ethical implications of a technology that did not yet exist.

The rest of the world has apparently caught up with Foresight, as these issues can be read in headlines around the world. Not only that, but the group’s advice is being sought as world governments and ethical panels respond to demands that regulation be investigated and societal implications be discussed.

Ralph Merkle, a Foresight founder who is now director of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center, says the group has always known its set of guidelines for nanotech regulation — really, a set of self-regulatory measures that ensure human control over nanotech — would not apply to real nanotechnology for decades. But one of Foresight’s objectives is that there is adequate public discussion “well in advance of reality.”

“I think that one of the things that happens in any discourse about some complex subject is you get a lot of confusion,” Merkle said. “That’s part and parcel of the process, and so what you want to do is start the discussion early, and as time goes by the confusion gradually settles down. In other words, people make wild statements. Fine. They make statements that aren’t accurate. Fine.

“As time goes on, people will look back and see what was accurate and not.”

Fine, but what does any of this have to do with the business of nanotechnology as it exists today? Why should Clements’ colleagues in the business world care?

“The argument is very simple,” Merkle said. “Businesses today who are announcing that they are interested in nanotechnology have to be aware that that brings with it a range of issues and concerns and they have to make sure that they’ve at least thought enough about it.”

Drexler, in an exclusive interview with Small Times, indicated that he sees some irony in the fact that the Foresight guidelines, which for years had been dismissed and seen as almost dangerous to nanotech developers, are now being looked upon as pretty reasonable in light of recent calls for far-harsher regulation in the shorter term.

What Drexler sees in Foresight’s newfound respect by all sides in the current environmental and ethical debates is a chance for his organization to play the peacemaker.

“That’s opening up options for building alliances with other organizations that have both research interests at one end of the spectrum and environmental concerns at the other end of the spectrum and we hope to bring these communities together to prevent the polarization that could I think, if not defused, then could cause a lot of damage to the industry.”

So, while Foresight as an organization hopes to make itself available as the Geneva of the nanotech world — neutral ground on which disputes can be aired, this conference appeared also to be ground zero in a kind of collision of different worlds. Like the industry, itself, Foresight is in transition as a jumble of political, scientific and financial worlds all finding themselves facing one another in a cross-disciplinary field.

One example of how a gulf remains: A panel discussion on venture capital featured some of the top nanotech VCs in the country who are not likely to fund most of the Foresight scientists’ projects. Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of the earliest investors in nanotech and among the first venture capitalists who saw the wisdom of getting to know the Foresight scientists, is amazed at how nanotech’s development has accelerated since his first Foresight conference eight years ago. Still, his advice to the group: Go for government funding, don’t try to change the world all at once, and come to him when they have a near-term business opportunity.

And that advice comes from a VC who knows what nanotech is. Your average VC on the street, Jurvetson said, would have never heard of a molecular assembler, and once it’s explained to them, their reaction would be, “Are you out of your mind? I’d never invest in something like that.”

Jurvetson is all in favor of changing the world, but if the revolution is going to be VC-funded, it will happen incrementally and through infusing the new technology with the old. “Revolutionize in the future, but do it in a way that couples with some existing business,” he told Small Times in an interview.

Take a molecular memory chip, Jurvetson said. Rather than build an entire nanotech solution and try to build a consortium of companies and technologies to deal with everything from nanolithography to nanopackaging to writing the software, take an existing memory chip and introduce molecular technology deeply embedded in it.

“If it’s better at doing nonvolatile memory storage, Boom! They’ll take over the flash memory chip market without having to change the application layer or the software layer or the computer layer.

“You don’t go home and say, ‘Drat, if only the other guys had done their part of the puzzle, or if only I had a consortium to bless my vision.’ “

Alan Marty, a VC with JP Morgan, predicted that some sort of standardization will occur in the next five years, when “we’re going to start seeing people who make building blocks” reliably enough that others can use them to make products. “When that happens, I think we’re going to see an explosion of commercial potential in nanotechnology. So, I’m really, really seeking out those kinds of opportunities.”

Marty was asked whether he’s talking about nanotubes, dendrimers or any one of the other nanomaterials that have been promoted as possible building blocks. “There’s no single stream of process flow that’s going to cover all the different nano ideas, but frankly you’re going to have two or three basic factories that are capable of handling 30 percent of the ideas in the nanoworld. That would be a huge breakthrough.”

Berkeley researchers Steven Louie and Marvin Cohen, who won the “theory” category of the 2003 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, are fairly certain that carbon nanotubes will be an important building block. So much so that Cohen helped found a company, Nanomix, to try to commercialize it — with Louie joining as a consultant.

These are theorists who also want to sell the results of their theories. Is that really the spirit of Foresight, the organization that’s a bit too “out there” to be taken seriously? Or are they ivory tower exceptions?

“If you had asked me this question 10, 15 years ago, I would say that I would be a real exception,” Louie said. “But I think nowadays, in the last five years, many more academics are actually interested in both fundamental basic research and applications and perhaps interested in possible commercial usage of the technology that’s developed.”

Carlo Montemagno of the University of California, Los Angeles, who won the Feynman Prize in experimental nanotechnology, is an engineer rather than a theorist and so is always looking for the commercial angle. He’s working on making materials and devices that are engineered with the properties of systems you find in the biological world. His “end-game” is a device with “embedded intelligence,” and he’s about two years away from his first application and possible launch of a company based on a membrane that can filter water.

Ultimately, he wants to build medical machines that are embedded into living tissue — something that is much more akin to the Drexler molecular machine vision. But if he can solve water problems in developing countries along the way, that certainly would be time well spent.

“I think that right now, we’re at the point where we’ve figured out how to manipulate matter, we’re putting the pieces of matter together,” he told the group during his award acceptance speech. “But the real vision, the real realization … is going to be when we look at how to put these things together and make complex systems. That’s when we’re going to see things that are truly remarkable and disruptive.”

They all see a direct line that runs between scientific theory, near-term application, achievement of long-term goals and Drexler’s ultimate vision of molecular machines. The “crackpots” are still connecting the dots.

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