Texas’ roadmap to supporting nano R&D


with Walt Trybula

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund (ETF) was formed in 2004 to support statewide nanotech commercialization and research efforts, with initial funds totaling $200 million–50% earmarked to commercialization efforts, 25% to reward research “superiority,” and 25% toward matching grants. The current legislative session is expected to keep funding allocations roughly the same as last year: $185M, distributed 70% to commercialization, 15% to research, and 10% for matching grants.

A recent report authored by Walt Trybula, director of the Nanomaterials Application Center at Texas State University-San Marcos, analyzes the state’s funding programs that promote economic development and research commercialization. Trybula, an IEEE and SPIE Fellow, discusses what’s working in Texas’ state support for nanotech ventures, what can be improved, and what’s next.

Q: What has the ETF done right, and where has it not lived up to hopes? And how do you think the ETF should be adjusted to maximize its impact and support for the state’s nanotech efforts?

What we have witnessed is that the fund has brought a number of creative companies to the forefront. The requirements for commercialization awards, which were an evolution, now contain identification of university researchers involved and coupled into a development that will be accomplished has resulted in some win–win partnerships. The requirements to receive an award have resulted in a greater amount of teaming among industry and universities, mentoring of emerging companies by sources of capital, and the Regional Centers of Innovation and Commercialization.

The report proposes the development of two distinct categories. Public-Private Partnerships [PPP] offer the opportunity to further couple industry and university researchers. The NDCC [Nanomaterials Design Commercialization Center] is only one of a number of examples that are happening in Texas. The Proof-of-Concept [POC] funding would enable the development of creative ideas that are close to prime time, but require a “little” more development. When working with creative types, one has probably exhausted all sources of money and is just shy of being able to finish. The POC could provide this final step. We are talking about relatively small amounts of funding to bring this to completion.

Q: What is Texas doing right to be considered a best practice for supporting/accelerating statewide economic growth, in the eyes of other states–and by venture capitalists?

The addition of pre-seed funding to the commercialization portion of the fund has permitted fledgling companies to reach out for funding, which is especially important in today’s economic climate. The state of Illinois reportedly is creating a $15 million fund that, while at a much smaller scale, has a strong resemblance to the commercialization portion of the Texas fund. Imitation is a strong form of flattery.

From a VC perspective, the mentoring and guidance provided to these emerging companies helps focus their efforts on both the commercialization of their technology development and the development of a viable business. Volunteers throughout the state [representing technology, business, and finance] evaluating proposals in assisting the companies to move towards commercialization number in the multiple hundreds. Being on a proposal review committee, I have witnessed the improvement in the quality of proposals being submitted over the last few years. What we have is a community of people throughout the state who are working to help companies be successful in commercializing their product development, which will result in an increase in quality jobs in the communities.

Another advantage of this statewide effort is that business leaders throughout the state are communicating with each other more frequently and comparing best practices which can be then implemented in their area. I talk with people throughout Texas, and in this report had roughly 100 volunteers participate in providing information.

Q: Most of the Texas industry “clusters” have some nanotech component: e.g. Advanced Technologies and Manufacturing Cluster (ATMC), and the NDCC which targets aerospace. How have these clusters changed since 2004; how must they change from 2009 and beyond?

With these six identified Texas industry clusters all representing key areas of current employment and the potential for significant increase in job creation, the technologies required to support these clusters becomes extremely important. Nanotechnology has the potential to advance developments in all of the critical areas.

Business evolution is an absolute necessity due to both rapidly changing technology and global competition. A knowledge infrastructure, like Silicon Valley or Austin, is actually built on a very large number of unsuccessful attempts. The ability to discuss ideas with colleagues who have a similar background is very important in permitting product commercialization along the path that has a high probability of success.

Q: Your report cites how welcoming SEMATECH was a key early win for Texas...but semiconductors are hurting today as much or more as other industries; and SEMATECH has largely uprooted its leading-edge development work to Albany, NY. What’s the next shining example for future industry R&D work in Texas, if not purely semiconductors? How and where can those lessons/skills be transferred to other activities and partnerships?

The MCC [Microelectronics Computer Consortium] was the early model for a consortium that was used to develop the SEMATECH model. There are still a number of semiconductor manufacturing sites in Texas; however, the development and construction of new facilities that was witnessed in the 1990s is probably gone forever anywhere in the world. This industry is evolving to a different model of development and supply that is unlike the industry of the 1980s and 1990s.

However, the basic fundamentals of the semiconductor process can be employed in other processes. Photovoltaic technology being developed throughout the world has a strong reliance on adapting the existing processes being used in manufacturing today. There are some portions of semiconductor manufacturing, especially metrology, which can be applied to the development of nanomaterials manufacturing.

Regional technology/ manufacturing clusters. (Source: State of Texas)
Click here to enlarge image

A significant amount of medical device development incorporates aspects of nanotechnology, but the absolute “must-have”–I do not like to use the term “killer-app” in this context!–has yet to be identified. With the largest medical complex in the country in the city of Houston and the research being done at universities and medical centers, the development and manufacturing of significant medical breakthroughs has begun.

With the size of the state and its large population, it is very difficult to try to identify a single region or technology and declare that it has a key presence. Aerospace has a large presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as the Panhandle; one cannot ignore the NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. The medical community has multiple locations throughout the state with some fairly significant concentrations in the larger cities. Texas has four, maybe five, of the top 20 largest cities in the country; the Austin-San Antonio corridor has 265,000 college students within about 120 miles. There are many opportunities for creative people to move forward to commercialize their efforts.

Q: Collaboration among universities is a growing trend, pooling efforts amongst themselves and with industry. Can you address how in general, and in this particular group of Texas institutes of higher education, you are seeing university collaboration–and perhaps also, increased competition?

Collaboration among universities is really a logical progression of the increasing cost of sophisticated equipment and the related expenses for maintainance and upkeep. In 2007, Texas voters approved the creation of a 10-year, $3B cancer research fund, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), with research spread across multiple sites. The six different State of Texas university systems along with private medical research institutions have agreed upon a common set of terms and conditions to apply to this research effort.

We have not worked out all the details of collaborative efforts, but we have multiple schools working together to increase the productivity of our research efforts; this includes private schools. While there will always be competition among schools and even among professors within the same institution, no single institution has all the tools and researchers it needs to solve every problem. Collaborating provides the ability to multiply their resources and researchers at any given institution by bringing in complementary capabilities to enhance research efforts. Yes, the researchers must have defined responsibilities and leadership on the various projects to minimize the complications that could arise without them.

There is a perception that all it takes to improve research capabilities is to go out and acquire equipment. In reality, it is the equipment and the expertise of the researchers and the support of the technicians that provides the ability to do the advanced research and development. While both Rice University and the University of Houston have excellent materials characterization capabilities, combining the expertise of the researchers at both these institutions and focusing on the most appropriate equipment to do the valuations of [their] capabilities [makes them] among the best in the world.