Chris Mather had some reservations about my proposal, and for good reason. The idea was, well, unconventional. And risky, since it involved an audience that might not buy into the concept. But he kept his concerns to himself, telling me about his doubts only after my talk as we navigated through the night cleaning crew at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland.
He had invited me to speak to Nano-Network, an association for the nanotech community in the Cleveland region. Mather, vice president of the technology-based economic development group NorTech, organized bimonthly talks and other events for Nano-Network. He and I had been discussing the possibility of a visit to Cleveland - my hometown - since the previous fall, eventually agreeing on a date in late March.
I suggested that I focus my talk on Ohio’s relative position as a nanotech leader. I could draw from Small Times’ annual analysis of state activities in research, innovation, company formation, venture capital investment and other factors that serve as measures of growth for a tech hub. But I wanted to add a twist. After years of overseeing the state rankings project for Small Times, I felt that the standard model used for this kind of analysis could be broadened.
Would adding business leadership put the results in sharper focus? After all, a startup with great technology but inexperienced executives could easily fail, while a company with mediocre technology but veteran leadership could prosper. And did proximity to customers matter? If these factors made a difference, how might we measure them?
I proposed a 40-minute talk that compared Ohio and New Mexico, two states that made the top 10 list in 2005 but for very different reasons. Then I wanted to turn the tables, using the question-and-answer session to pose my questions and see what kind of responses they would elicit.
Yes, it could have been dead silence. But instead a few hands rose in the audience. The first commentator talked about Midwest ethics, and how a person’s word was valued in Ohio. That quality of leadership, not quantity, mattered. More hands appeared. Inventors discussed frustrations with funding. Chief executives shared strategies. Researchers gave testimonials. My role shifted from speaker to moderator of an 80-or-so-person group discussion. After 45 minutes, we were threatened with being locked in with the janitors if we didn’t vacate the center.
A few weeks later I was reminded of that open exchange of professionals as I conducted interviews for an article about nanotech facilities. The story appears in our special report. Several planners mentioned their enjoyment at witnessing the swapping of ideas that occurred as scientists and engineers - heretofore strangers - met at preliminary gatherings to discuss what they hoped to achieve with a nanotech center. Some of those encounters have grown into the kinds of interdisciplinary research partnerships needed to push nanotech ahead.
And that may be my favorite trait of people involved in nanotechnology: their willingness to accept and even embrace otherness. Their willingness to step into the less familiar, the unfamiliar and the completely unknown is an inspiration.
For five years I have had the privilege to march alongside as we built Small Times from scratch. I now have an opportunity to do something similar with the startup Cleantech, whose focus on efficient and environmentally friendly technologies overlaps with nanotechnology in many ways.
So this is not a “goodbye.” It’s a “see you later.”
Candace Stuart is editor-in-chief at Small Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.