Sept. 10, 2002 — It may always be Motown. But the region named for its ties to the auto industry offers a lot of potential as the next Microtown, Michigan Gov. John Engler told an audience of small tech leaders Monday.
Michigan provides the critical educational, industrial and governmental support to help turn small tech innovations into products, he said at the opening of the seventh International Commercialization of Micro and Nanosystems Conference (COMS) in Ypsilanti, Mich. What’s more, the state has an impressive track record through the auto industry for launching technologies that have transformed the world.
“It’s a high-tech state that prides itself on finding markets and the commercialization of high-tech products,” Engler said. “It isn’t just about the idea.”
The four-day 2002 COMS event is one of a handful of small tech-related conferences scheduled this week. Aerospace, energy, life sciences and transportation are the subject at Nanotech 2002 — at the Edge of Revolution in Houston. In Chicago on Monday, the recently formed Chicago Microtechnology/Nanotechnology Community got together to talk about small tech projects. And in upstate New York from Wednesday to Friday, the Albany Symposium on Global Nanotechnology will discuss small tech’s role in economic recovery.
These conferences follow last week’s Nanotech Venture Fair in La Jolla, Calif., making it a busy couple of weeks in the small tech industry.
At COMS in Michigan, Engler highlighted the state’s leadership in MEMS education and research at the University of Michigan (U-M) in Ann Arbor as well as Michigan State University in East Lansing, Wayne State University in Detroit and Michigan Technological University in Houghton. Its universities create innovation and a trained labor force, he said.
U-M began building a MEMS program in its engineering department decades ago that is now recognized as one of the top research centers. The university, in collaboration with other state schools, received funding from the National Science Foundation for a Wireless Integrated Microsystems center. Wireless microsystems are expected to play roles in everything from medical implants to technologies for military monitors.
“These are higher education programs that generate MEMS-based products,” Engler said. They also attract top-notch engineering students for future employers. U-M graduated eight doctoral students with small tech expertise, he said, and has 80 more students working on graduate degrees. “This is an important part of helping (the small tech industry) meet its needs and expand.”
The Detroit-based auto industry was among the first high-volume users of MEMS, he said, citing the integration of MEMS accelerometers into airbags. While the Motor City is no longer the industry’s undisputed world leader, it still offers opportunities for small tech companies because almost all carmakers support research and design offices in the region.
The Engler administration also sees economic opportunity in biotechnology, with small tech playing a role with devices for drug delivery, DNA analysis and diagnostics. The state earmarked $1 billion of its tobacco settlement award to commercialize biomedical technologies and funded several small tech startups through the program.
“The life sciences are possibly more exciting, more interesting and possibly more important,” he said.
Engler, who is wrapping up his reign after more than a decade in power, made technology a state priority in recent years. In a 2001 state address, he promoted small tech as a means for economic growth. Small tech complements not only the state’s biotech program but also its alternative energy initiative and other high-tech efforts. “These are small things with big consequences,” he said.
‘More efficient’ terror war
In Houston, conference attendees had the upcoming Sept. 11 anniversary on their minds. Soon after the attacks, the intelligence community formed a working group to focus on advanced power systems, sensors and other devices that could help in the global fight, said Frank Gac, a senior scientist with the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center.
Whether you’re talking about a new “James Bond” watch or a tracking satellite, said Gac, “we would like to go smaller and more efficient.” And in a timeline he shared with attendees of Nanotech 2002 in Houston, he outlined plans to develop a list of intelligence needs that could be met with ongoing research in the nanotech field.
In the aftermath of the attacks, said Jim Von Ehr, chief executive of Dallas-based Zyvex Corp., the government clamped down on new visas. That in turn has cut down on the number of foreign scientists who can come to the United States, posing a critical challenge to the industry.
As a result, said Von Ehr, some companies have decided to funnel more money to research facilities outside the United States. To counteract that trend, he said, government agencies will need to revise the way they handle visas for top researchers.
Nanotech 2002 is concentrating on a broad range of MEMS and nanotech work being developed for space. NASA is looking at ways in which nanotechnology will converge with biological and information technologies to create systems that are autonomous, ultraefficient and evolvable, said Minoo Dastor of the Office of Aerospace Technology. “We’re still in the beginning,” he said, “but it’s something we feel is of huge value.”
But mixed in with talk of a new generation of thrusters and smart materials, many of the presenters told how they were also using private dollars to develop new products intended for rapid commercialization. The new technology headed for the marketplace include new MEMS devices to enhance eyewear and new resonators for hearing aids.
Most promising companies
Farther across the country in La Jolla, Calif., last week, Charles Janac, president and chief executive of Nanomix Inc., talked about how he has taken 145 meetings with 41 venture capital firms since October. Nanomix, based in Emeryville, Calif., is developing carbon-nanotube sensors for chemical gas detection and hydrogen storage alternatives incorporating nanomaterials.
For his efforts, Janac ended up with three term sheets and enough paperwork to have “killed a small forest,” he said during a keynote speech last Wednesday at the Nanotech Venture Fair in La Jolla, Calif. Two of the deals tanked; one stuck. Janac continues to pitch for the Series B round of $9 million.
Nanomix, among 45 companies to present at the venture fair, took home an award for “Most Promising Nanotechnology Company.”
Other winners, all privately held companies, included: Advanced Diamond Technologies, a Chicago-based spinout from Argonne National Laboratory commercializing thin films from nanocrystalline diamond; Fluidigm Corp., a microfluidic device developer in South San Francisco, Calif.; and NanoOpto Corp., which last March opened a nanomanufacturing plant in Somerset, N.J., to mass-produce optical networking components.
Also mentioned as promising companies were NTera Ltd., a Dublin, Ireland-based company with electronic ink technology that can create paper-quality flat panel displays; and Nanosys Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., a bottom-up developer of nanotechnology-enabled systems that include nanowires and quantum dots.
(Small Times Correspondents Jayne Fried in La Jolla., Calif., and John Carroll in Houston contributed to this report.)