Nanotech Innovation Gap Revisited

I have devoted a fair amount of pixels to the subject of the innovation gap in nanotech.

In my estimation it is a matter of more pressing concern than whether there’s nanoparticles in my electronics simply because if we don’t get this sorted all the environmental concerns surrounding nanotechnology will be made moot. (So all you NGOs out there, nanotechnology actually has to succeed before you can make it into the boogeyman.)

Despite my “jaundiced view” of the President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) webcast (thanks, Frogheart) on the topic of the “Golden Triangle”, I watched nearly all of the first part before the lunch break. I should say in defense of my harsh characterization that the promotional copy that accompanied this webcast did a great disservice to it, and I would add was entirely inaccurate.

The meeting was not at all about getting the public's opinion on application directions for IT, biotech and nanotech, but instead was about getting the perspectives of the distinguished panel of experts on not what the next applications ought to be but what is stifling innovation in these fields.

The panelists brought varied perspectives to the subject, but they all seemed to share some common themes, most notably: the funding and innovation gap between a lab prototype and a commercial product is nearly unbridgeable with nearly no properly functioning funding or infrastructure mechanisms  to overcome it.

While one of the workshop’s chairpersons, Eric Schmidt, dismissed the oft-told stories of “lack of money” and a need for “better educated people” as the same tired old complaints as he looked vainly for some fundamental problem that could be solved, one could begin to see that in this case the fundamental problem might just be humanity.

We are too selfish, too greedy, too focused on our own interests and concerns for us to see that the fundamental problem could just be our common human sins. Just listening to each panel expert deliver their background gave you a hint at this. The instrumentation experts saw the problem being one of instrumentation, the academics who had just become neo-entrepreneurs saw it as a lack of angel investors and VCs, etc. etc. It went on and on like this.

For solutions the panel also included Judy Estrin who sees that the problem is that we don’t have any more Xerox Parcs, in other words, businesses have neglected their duty in conducting more basic research. This strikes me on a first look as being more a symptom than a fundamental cause or a solution.

Comments written in from the public that were screened and regurgitated for us were erudite and proposed new IP frameworks and all sorts of different innovation models from what we currently have. But the chairs seemed unmoved or uninterested in these, intent on finding either some quick, on-the-cheap fixes (Shirley Ann Jackson) or getting at the fundamental problem (Schmidt).

Once again it seems that the solutions here may best come in the form of incremental steps. A panelist from the University of Southern California detailed how critical a tool Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) has been to the development of many recent breakthroughs we have seen recently, and yet if the researchers who developed TEM were to seek funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop that instrument today they wouldn’t be able to get it.

The development costs would have to be in the millions and the best the researchers could hope for would be hundreds thousands of dollars. Chad Mirkin reinforced this by noting that currently the NSF has a couple of million dollars set aside for developing new instrumentation technologies, but they are splitting the project between 13 bids, resulting in many small grants all of which won’t get the researchers anywhere but may satisfy some notion of spreading the wealth.

Here’s a quick fix, spend the same amount of money you are planning but focus it on fewer projects.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
Editor
Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
 
Contributor
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY
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