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Business group spreads word on nano

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   Feb. 15, 2002 at 3:54 PM
WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- An industry group focusing on nanotechnology -- manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level -- is establishing more than 20 regional offices this year to spur growth in the technology.

The NanoBusiness Alliance is headquartered in New York City, but its first regional "hubs" will set up shop in Washington and Denver. The group expects to have about 25 hubs operating by year's end, in locations such as Boston, California's Silicon Valley, Israel and Canada.

The goal is to catalyze understanding, planning and implementation of business plans for nanotechnology and places such as New York City already have all the ingredients for successful startups, said Mark Modzelewski, the alliance's executive director.

"The first order of business is pulling together the people who are the natural players in the field ... getting them to have a central meeting point to rally around," Modzelewski told United Press International on Friday. "In some cases you literally have the hurdle of needing an honest broker."

Hubs in other regions could concentrate on cataloging nearby nanotechnology assets, Modzelewski said. Places such as Chicago and Michigan have a lot to offer; for instance, the NanoBio company in Ann Arbor already developed an anti-anthrax foam using nanotech, he said.

This area of science creates objects and devices usually measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter. A nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles. Such tiny developments are garnering major attention, with the Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2003 budget allotting $679 million for the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

That level of public funding could make a private effort seem moot, but most of the money is meant for basic research that presents little return on investment, Modzelewski said.

The alliance's efforts will help point out topics within nanotech which are ready for commercialization, said Edward Moran, director of product innovation for the consulting firm Deloitte and Touche.

"The hubs will provide nascent nanotech companies with the visibility necessary to attract world-class funding sources and to reach their potential customers," Moran said.

The group might benefit from reviewing the history of existing "small tech" efforts such as microelectromechanical devices, said Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. That area, with devices 10 to 100 times larger than nanotech, saw a great deal of interest in the early 1990s, she said.

"People were coming out with all sorts of 'gee whiz' stories, there was this incredibly huge level of hype for a technology that wasn't positioned to take advantage of the interest that was being generated," Bourne told UPI. "People put their tails between their legs and retreated, and nobody would talk to anybody for the better part of a decade. A lot of people got burned, and I sort of see that happening with nanotechnology."

Today, advocacy groups in the MEMS community sometimes are criticized for what some see as a "stealth" to promoting the technology, Bourne said. Given the possibility that nano will be the buzzword of the year, the alliance's high-profile approach is understandable, she said.

The hub effort is meant to avoid overblown expectations, Modzelewski said, by giving people a long-term view of how nanotechnology will affect all areas of society in a few years. Texas has started a similar program with some positive results in attracting nano-related activity, he said, making the alliance wish they had moved a little earlier.

"We're the Johnny Appleseeds here instead of the McDonald's," Modzelewski said. "We're not so much interested in franchising this stuff."

Some definitions of nanotech include MEMS, raising the possibility the NanoBusiness Alliance effort could be seen as moving in on other people's turf. Modzelewski said the group's aware of existing "fiefdoms" within the small tech community, but since everyone is attempting to boost interest in the area, the alliance probably won't upset anyone.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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