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The Challenge: Boost Nano, Create Jobs

by Gwyneth K. Shaw | May 9, 2012 11:58 am

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Posted to: Environment, Nanotech, Science/ Medical

NNI Image PORTLAND, Ore.—How do you marry the drive for innovation to the need for new—and well-paid—jobs?

A phalanx of federal officials who work on research, development and policy involving super-small materials came to the City of Roses last week to ponder that question. They were joined by people from all over the country—Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona were just a few of the home addresses—who are in the economic development and education trenches.

The two-day workshop, sponsored by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, was supposed to combine networking with demystification, on both sides. The folks on the ground talked about their successes and failures over more than a decade of efforts to turn nanotechnology into an economic development engine, and their needs for the future. The federal officials talked about what they can do to help. They explained the web of 26 agencies and programs that are part of the NNI, and talked about how the government is fostering all types of research—including crucial studies on the safety of nanomaterials—and where to go to help small companies apply for grants and other aid.

“It definitely helps them to put a face on the federal government,” said Robert Pohanka, the new director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.

Large companies like HP and Lockheed Martin already know how the system works, he said. But smaller companies, and the publicly- or privately-funded organizations trying to boost them, can feel lost.

Meetings like the Portland event “gives them a point of contact where we can bring their questions to the right people,” Pohanka said. “I think we help them by making them more effective, by getting their technical ideas to the right people.”

Nanotechnology is a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of uses of very small materials (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). These substances can make better batteries or lighter and stronger bike frames, as well as new medical instruments and medicines that can save lives. They’re increasingly common in consumer products, from “mineral-based” sunscreens to stain-repellent pants to boat paints that resist algae growth.

Nanomaterials are believed to hold great promise for a wide variety of applications. Their ultra-tiny size also gives them different properties; scientists are struggling to figure out whether that can make them dangerous in the process, and how and why it happens.

At the same time, there’s a huge push to turn the ultra-tiny into an economic driver, especially in places—like, maybe, New Haven—where manufacturing jobs have drained away as factories close.

Gwyneth K. Shaw Photo Jim Mason (pictured) executive director of the Oklahoma Nanotechnology Initiative, drove home a point early in the meeting.

“If you’ve seen one regional, state or local initiative, you’ve seen one. We’re all different,” Mason said.

Regional initiatives, he said, are withering on the vine, caught up in state budget crises and without any federal support.

“We’re almost at the point where we need a nationwide plan of action on behalf of regional, state and local initiatives,” said Clayton Teague, former director of the NNCO.

While some states, including Oklahoma, have stuck with efforts to develop nano-based companies, it’s crucial to keep reminding lawmakers of the potential benefits, Mason said.

“We cannot expect for this to happen if we’re not willing to take the time and go talk to our legislators,” Mason said. “I’m saying, educate people about what you’re doing … you have to be a voice that speaks up. We cannot sit back and expect our people in Washington to make our sale for us.”

Being flexible is key, Mason said. For example, there aren’t enough suppliers to serve the nano-related companies in Oklahoma, he said, so lawmakers agreed to let local companies import ingredients from outside the state.

Mason mentioned one such partnership: An Oklahoma bread company noticed that its bagging machine would start burning holes in the plastic bags after about 1,000 loaves came through. The company found a coating for its machine that stopped the melting—in San Diego.

Many of these state-based organizations offer grants that serve as seed money for fledgling companies. That helps bridge the gap until private funding can be found.

David Porter, who oversees the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s work in Oregon and parts of Washington, gave some advice on how to help companies get even small amounts of funding. The EDA is an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Porter told the group that companies need to be able to answer a simple question: “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve with this investment?” That’s what anyone—public or private—wants to know before putting in money.

State initiatives basically fall into several models, Mason said. The first involves a significant investment from the state, and is exemplified by places like New York, which has poured money into the now hugely successful private-public-academic partnership centered around Albany, where President Obama visited this week.

The second model involves state control as well as money; Oklahoma and North Carolina’s nano initiatives are organized that way (Mason’s organization gets state funding and is coordinated by the state Chamber of Commerce; click here to read an Independent story about it).

A third type is a project with a single goal, like the Nanotechnology Foundation of Texas, which accomplished its mission and shut its doors.

The fourth model, Mason said, is basically a bottom-up, business association setup. Colorado’s didn’t work, while Arizona’s has struggled to get off the ground.

So, what do these efforts need to get better? Mason suggested federal matching funding, but also said the groups need to spend more time talking to one another—and learning from those conversations.

Part of the problem has been the difficulties of making laboratory stars into viable products, and companies. Vincent Caprio, pictured, head of the NanoBusiness Commercialization Association, said the nascent industry has suffered through a “perfect storm” over the past dozen years: Two recessions and a dramatic shift in the flow of venture capital dollars, the lifeblood of startup companies.

It’s turned out that developing nano-based innovations takes a lot longer than hatching the latest iPhone app—and investors don’t want to sign up when a return might take a decade or longer. That’s made it harder for nano companies to turn technology into dollars—and manufacturing jobs.

Then there’s the other side of the coin: Creating a workforce that can serve these companies as they break into production. Skip Rung, who heads the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, said new efforts need to push the idea of creating a “high-tech extension” at the university level. The idea is to replicate what land-grant schools once did with agricultural extension, he said, teaching students how to handle today’s jobs.

“What we really need is a mindset shift, from technology push to marketing pull,” Rung said. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the venture capitalists’ objective is to create jobs.”

Kevin Conley, who oversees a program at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., that teaches students about nanotechnology and gives them hands-on training, told the group about his efforts.

“It’s $1,250 a semester,” Caprio said. “These students are getting jobs.”

A similar program at Pennsylvania State University offers two-year degrees and a ton of resources.

Those kinds of efforts build into what Tim Harper, who heads the British consulting and market-information firm Cientifica, called the “triple helix” of government, industry and academia.

So, where does everyone go from here? Several at the meeting emphasized the need for closer ties between the federal government and more local counterparts.

Sally Tinkle, deputy director of the NNCO, said that these meetings, held once every two years, offer a chance to take the idea of coordinating national efforts on nanotechnology to a different plane.

“I’ve understood the diversity of what the state, regional and local groups are trying to do, and the breadth of that is impressive. Without meetings like this, we can’t appreciate those differences,” she said. “That’s a real value to me to this kind of workshop.”

Mason agreed, saying nothing can replace face time—at every level.

“When you can tell your story, people will understand, and will buy it,” Mason said. “The RSLs are not doing a good job of telling our story.”

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