It is with great pleasure I can report that I read a really first-rate article on nanotechnology from the mainstream press. It comes from the Irish Times and is based around an interview with Prof Peter Dobson of Oxford University, who had been in Ireland in early February for the Nanoweek conference.
I had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Dobson in his role as Academic Director of Oxford University’s Begbroke Science Park when I was helping to give some visiting researchers a tour of UK research facilities. With no other motivation than to share his knowledge and experience, he gave us all some rich insights into how it can be possible to lift mere lab research into really making an impact.
The same too goes for this interview in the Irish Times. What is so intriguing about Dobson’s thoughts on nanotechnology and its commercialization is that he remains one of the few who is both a first-rate scientist with both an academic and industrial background and an accomplished businessman.
For me, the greatest lessons are often learned from failures rather than successes, so it is in his explanation of a recent failure of one of his spinout companies Oxford Biosensors that I found a good one.“That is a terribly sad story,” he recalls of Oxford Biosensors in the Irish Times article. Adding it was “too disruptive for any licence deal” and the costs of gaining regulatory approval proved overwhelming.
“We developed a sensor for substances, in a pinprick of blood, which would be markers of cardiac risk. We were within eight or nine months of having a commercial product on the market, but we ran out of money.”
There are all sorts of ways for a company to fail, especially one that is using an emerging technology, but running out of money seems to be a common complaint. But what can’t be overlooked is that established players in the market, even if their technology is comparatively inferior, are not going to make it easy for anyone to introduce a technology into the market that will make their product obsolete.
As I was quoted in an article on the pages of Spectrum when discussing Nantero’s long-awaited nanotube memory chip: ”It is competing with large companies. Samsung, for instance, has created a $4 billion market for themselves with flash memory. Do you think they are going to idly sit by while some start-up says they are going to make that business obsolete? Not likely; they have their own approach, which they are developing in conjunction with University of Cambridge.”
The important lesson here to me is that even if there is strong market pull for your technology, even if you can bridge any regulatory obstacles, you still have to contend with entrenched market giants who just aren’t going to let you walk off with their business.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.