Still limitless after all these years
When I started with Small Times five-and-a-half years ago, the potential for MEMS and nanotechnology seemed limitless. Today, that description of the technologies seems to me more accurate than ever.
Widespread commercialization of MEMS has taken longer than expected, due in part to the telecom bust, but also to the challenges of getting one-off technology platforms through design and volume manufacturing. While the investment world focused on nanotechnology in recent years, the MEMS companies dug in their heels and bootstrapped. The foundries worked with start-ups and large corporations to design devices that could be manufactured successfully in large quantities, and that leveraged knowledge sets that could be shared and implemented across companies and product lines. Improvements in manufacturing tools and precision machining technologies are also starting to improve capabilities, quality, and reliability.
Nano and its investors
The commercialization of nano is taking much longer than the investment community hoped-but just as the nanoscientists predicted. While nanotech will eventually impact virtually all industries and disrupt untold products and markets, I suspect time to delivery will be proportional to the technology’s promise.
Throwing money at the problem won’t help. Time will tell whether the nano IPOs expected this fall (all of which received major infusions of capital in 2006) will in fact have the revenue/sales legs for market success. Are they ready to fledge, or are the investors pushing too early for the exit? Maybe there isn’t a choice; NanoOpto’s fall (see p. 37) was a big disappointment to many that had hoped for it to be the next public offering.
Another nano IPO failure will not help the prospects of other nanotechnology companies looking for financing. As a sector we have always overvalued venture-capital trends, however. “Patient” money plays a critical role in the growth of many small tech companies, and nanotechnology companies are no exception.
Large corporations continue to step up their visibility in the space. Most realize they don’t have the internal expertise to develop what they need long-term. Partnering and strategic investments give them the flexibility to explore different product pathways, as does keeping a close eye on potential acquisition targets.
The M&A market for tools and equipment vendors has been getting stronger, especially as the technologies start to align with semiconductor roadmap requirements. The nanomaterials sector isn’t far behind, and the NanoDynamics IPO will be watched closely. Hopefully any acquisitions will be of strength and not fire sales.
Why the continued optimism?
Some may question the staying power of, and challenge the continued optimism about, small tech, with the public markets still tenuous and environmental, health, and safety issues hitting us at every angle (see the special report beginning on p. 29). These are temporary problems. Almost every appliance or product in our daily lives is getting smaller, smarter, lighter, and more powerful, and these advances are being driven by small technologies. Yes, these are evolutionary advances, but the revolution is coming.
I have seen how technology advancement can be significantly influenced through coordinated efforts among academia, industry, and government. I’ll use that knowledge as I leave my post at Small Times and move into my new role with the Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization. There, I’ll help drive solutions to market in two areas of critical global importance: energy and water. Cleantech may be an investment fad, but like small tech, the need for technologies and process that allow for sustainable global growth will not go away.
Although this is my last column as publisher, I look forward to contributing to Small Times and remaining an active proponent of micro- and nanotechnologies.
Patti Glaza is the former publisher of Small Times.