Here’s some advice for 2006: Always try to anticipate who is gunning for your tailpipe.
Rick Snyder, co-founder and chief executive of the venture capital firm Ardesta, offered that pointer during a presentation at the NanoCommerce conference that Small Times and partners held in Chicago last November. Snyder has helped launch many micro and nanotech-related companies, including Small Times. As the former president and now chairman of Gateway Inc., he knows what it’s like to spot an object looming ever closer in the rearview mirror.
Later that day, Kurt Petersen told attendees what it feels like to watch a competitor zoom by you. The winner of Small Times’ 2005 Lifetime Achievement award was listing some of the microsystem community’s successful commercialization efforts during his acceptance speech at a luncheon ceremony. Petersen’s own contributions, developed through two of the startups he created, included blood pressure monitors that use MEMS sensors and portable pathogen detectors.
But there were failures as well, he cautioned. Take his experience as the architect of MEMS sensors targeted for the automotive industry. He described one day at the office when he received a fax describing a MEMS accelerometer from the semiconductor company, Analog Devices Inc. He rushed the paper over to his boss. “What do they know about MEMS?” was the dismissive response.
ADI knew enough to capture the airbag market in the 1990s. Last year, ADI announced that it had shipped its 200 millionth inertial sensor. In the meantime, Petersen’s company had faded into obscurity.
In this issue, we’ve focused on here-and-now nanotechnology products. We’ve highlighted key consumer markets where nanotech has made inroads: cosmetics, textiles, construction materials, sporting goods and electronics. How many companies in those markets have glanced over their shoulders to find a nanotech startup at their bumpers? How many have overlooked the threat?
Suppliers of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and other materials may have noticed that Oxonica, Nanophase Technologies and other nanomaterials specialists are leaving them in the dust in the cosmetics markets. Oxonica and Nanophase provide nanoscale additives to products such as sunscreens that allow lotions to appear transparent but still block out damaging ultraviolet light rays.
The golf ball industry may see a change in its leader board as well. NanoDynamics has devised a golf ball whose hollow metal core reduces hooks and slices. The balls meet the industry’s standard for size and weight. NanoDynamics began selling the balls late last year, which could be the beginning of the end for traditional golf ball makers. Are they looking?
But as Donn Tice exemplifies, it takes more than technology to get and hold a lead. Tice heads up Nano-Tex, whose nano-based fabric additives have helped rejuvenate the textile industry. Clothing manufacturers use Nano-Tex’s products to give their brands pizzazz, whether it’s slacks that don’t stain or shirts that don’t wrinkle. The company now works with dozens of mills and its name is paired with retailers like Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End.
Nowadays Tice hears the roar of other nanotech companies that have a bead on Nano-Tex’s tailpipe. And he has a strategy for widening his lead: His sales team is targeting the big boxes, convincing retailers like Target and Bed Bath and Beyond that they need to stock Nano-Tex-enhanced clothing, napkins, pillows and other home furnishings. Create demand among the decision-making buyers, he argues.
Anticipation, it turns out, is only the first step. Next you need to outmaneuver them on the track.
Candace Stuart is editor-in-chief at Small Times. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.