Nanotech evolves from a mere community to a rich and diverse ecosystem
Frequently you hear the term “nanotechnology community.” I know I’ve used it on many occasions in my column and while speaking at events.
Confirmation of its existence came at our annual event, Small Times NanoCon International, held in Las Vegas in September. The nanotechnology community was composed of both the old guard - which means about three-plus years on the nano circuit - as well as the new players that are there to learn about the sector and what impact it may have on their organizations and businesses.
But while the term “community” is warm and fuzzy, the word we use to describe this network has to go beyond just “a group of people having common interests,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines “community”. Value of many shapes and sizes must be generated - new business relationships, mentoring, referrals, ideas, commercial applications, etc.
That’s why when Vida Ilderem, vice president of embedded systems at Motorola Labs, started talking about Motorola’s nanotechnology “ecosystem” at the Lux Executive Summit in October, my ears perked up immediately. An ecosystem is “a system whose members benefit from each other’s participation via symbiotic relationships (positive sum relationships),” as defined by Learnthat.com.
For Motorola, the nanotechnology ecosystem includes internal development, university and lab partnerships, venture investments, technology licensing, joint development agreements, and standards and consortium participation. This network of relationships will fuel Motorola’s future product development. From its chemical and bio sensor partnership with Arizona State University to its fast-charge battery partnership with A123 Systems to its desire to license out its nano emissive display technology, Motorola understands that “going it alone” is not an option.
Ilderem succinctly defined some of the challenges the company sees right now in the intersection of nanotechnologies with its business. First is supply-chain development. Large corporations need stable, reliable partners that can provide the necessary units, on-time, and with guaranteed quality. While Sony will weather the fire-breathing battery disaster after much litigation and insane amounts of money to the lawyers, a start-up would never survive the same scenario. When a big corporate entity takes on a young company as a partner, the associated risks are significant.
Second is high volume manufacturing. Scaling up to supply millions of units is not an easy task. While the technology may make sense in the lab, unless the parts can be manufactured rapidly and cost-effectively, it will never see the light of day. While there is a mad dash to provide the tools and equipment that can handle nano-scale production, there are still a number of significant hurdles to overcome.
Additional needs Ilderem presented included continuous invention and characterization. Sit down with any of the large multi-nationals, many of which participated at NanoCon International this year, and you will hear the same issues. Stability of the younger nano companies is a key challenge. In order to get funding, start-ups need to show that they have corporate partnerships and thus real markets for their products, yet in order to get the corporate partnerships, they need to prove they will be around long enough to be a viable long-term supplier. It’s classic chicken-and-egg.
There is often debate on what is more important, building a broad-based nanotechnology network or focusing on integrating nanotechnology into the vertical industries. It’s the wrong debate. The common set of challenges mentioned above, which also extends to EHS (environmental, health and safety), research and development priorities and funding, public and private financial markets, standards, technology transfer, legislation, etc. is the foundation for the nanotechnology ecosystem that exists and must continue to exist.
And of course the vertical industries play a critical role in technology adoption. While the start-up CEO needs to be interacting in the nano ecosystem to ensure his or her company is partnering with the right suppliers, getting access to technical and financial resources, discovering new opportunities for their technologies, and leading the EHS debate rather than reacting to it, it isn’t enough. Company leaders also need to be promoting and participating within their verticals to understand the supply chain and industry drivers, and to gain access to the markets they seek to dominate.
As Small Times starts its sixth year of publishing, we are focused on highlighting the common set of challenges inherent to our ecosystem - yet we will continue to address how the vertical industries are utilizing both micro and nanotechnologies to solve real commercial problems. It’s a difficult balance to walk, but we know we aren’t doing it alone. Our goal is to not only make clear the opportunities we have to work together, but to provide forums in print, online, and at our events to facilitate real solutions for our readers.
Patti Glaza is vice president and publisher at Small Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.