NANOTEXAS: THE LAND OF BIG OIL
IS NOW BOOMTOWN FOR THE TINY

By Candace Stuart
Small Times Senior Writer

HOUSTON, July 16, 2001 — The land of everything big is making a name for itself in the smallest of small tech — nanotechnology.

Texas is home to scores of research centers, incubators and businesses betting that nanoscale will be gargantuan. Houston, Dallas and Austin boast a variety of research programs, some of the highest-profile small tech start-ups and other supporting initiatives.

“We’re getting a significant mass if not a critical mass,” said Michael Cox, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Cox follows the state’s nanotechnology developments but is not actively researching the topic.

Here’s a partial list of what Texas has to offer:

Texas is the birthplace of nanotechnology, making it a logical state for these enterprises, said chemist Sean O’Brien, who witnessed that birth in 1985 as a graduate student at Rice University in Houston.

“It was in Houston where we discovered it,” said O’Brien, who now designs the next generation of computer chips for Texas Instruments in Dallas.

O’Brien was referring to buckminsterfullerenes — or buckyballs — 60 carbon atoms that form a sphere and are potential molecular machines. They’ve been touted as conductors, semiconductors, superconductors and drug-carrying capsules. O’Brien’s professors, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996 for the discovery. Smalley is director of Rice’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

The University of Texas at Austin is carving a niche for itself in nano characterization — or “taking nano pictures” of matter at the molecular level, said Paul Barbara, director of the Center for Nano- and Molecular Science and Technology. The center has a budget of about $7 million for research and equipment and more than 20 researchers.

While Rice and UT-Austin are the top Texan institutional names in nano, several other universities have faculty exploring the field, including the University of Houston, Texas Christian and Southern Methodist universities, and the UT branches in Dallas, Arlington and San Antonio.

Cox said Texas has learned it needs to seize economic opportunity through the latest technologies. The state remade itself after the collapse of the oil industry in the mid-1980s into a technology hot spot by embracing computer-related companies such as Dell Computers, Compaq Computers and Texas Instruments, and later the biomedical and Internet industries, Cox said.

A Milken Institute study ranked Dallas as the No. 2 city in the nation for high tech growth in the late 1990s. Another study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas placed the state second behind California for its number of high tech telecommunications and computer jobs.

Cox credits the state’s willingness to welcome new technologies and its pro-growth government for drawing established businesses and entrepreneurs willing to take on risky but potentially lucrative projects.

“This is a zero income tax state,” Cox said. “There is the prospect of striking it really, really rich.”

Nanotechnology, where parts are built from the bottom up an atom at a time, will slash the cost of producing everything from computers to cars if it takes hold, proponents claim. That would make any successful nanotech enterprise a surefire hit with Wall Street.

“The fortunes could dwarf Bill Gates,” Cox said, referring to Microsoft’s top gun and the nation’s perennial leading billionaire.

That kind of environment is an enticement for entrepreneurs such as Zyvex President Jim Von Ehr, said Cox. Von Ehr has invested some of the fortune he made with his desktop publishing company Altsys Corp. to launch Zyvex. He also donated $2.5 million to the University of Texas at Dallas this spring to create a Nanotechnology Research Center on campus.

The company is using both a top-down technique to build parts in the micron range, and researching bottom-up approaches for self-assembling nanotechnologies. “We’d like to provide something like an erector set, where you see a library of parts, and pick and put them together,” he said. “Essentially, we want to be a parts supplier.”

Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in Houston is taking another approach. The Houston-based company is a spin-off of the carbon nanotube work at Rice by Smalley, who is a co-founder of CNI. Its goal is to become the world’s supplier of carbon nanotubes, which could reduce the cost of everything from flat panel displays and cathode ray tubes to lithium batteries and computers.

Several organizations are trying to unify the various forces to position Texas as a nano leader. Von Ehr and Zyvex helped create the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative, a 14-member consortium of businesses, venture capitalists, universities and government that work together to court companies and funding sources.

Outside Houston, the Center for NanoSpace Technology in Huffman is hoping to become a clearinghouse for the state’s nanotechnology efforts. The center offers nanotech research facilities, staff and support services to help companies market small tech products.

The center also coordinates a biennial international conference on applications for nanoscale and microscale technologies. “We want to bring together a lot of people who are spread thinly,” said Steve Watson, the center’s chief executive. “There is a lot of nanotechnology research that is still in the sandbox stage.”

RELATED STORY: Regions vie for nanotech capital


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CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Candace Stuart at candacestuart@smalltimes.com or call 734-994-1106, ext. 235.

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