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Group Bridges Various Fields In Nanotech

A ‘Cross-Fertilization’ Effort

Institute founder sees big nanotech impact for health care and many other areas.

Investor’s Business Daily
By J. Bonasia
Posted on Monday March 6, 2006

Nanotechnology involves engineering at the atomic scale, and that’s no small feat.

One nanometer measures one billionth of a meter across. Matter exhibits unusual physical properties when it’s engineered at that nano level. For instance, nano materials can be made much lighter yet stronger than conventional substances.

Experts say nanotech is likely to reshape whole industries, including manufacturing, health care, energy, high tech and defense.

Perhaps no one is more excited about the potential of nanotech than Matthew Laudon, co-founder of the Nano Science and Technology Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The institute promotes nanotechnology through education, publishing, outreach and business-development programs.

NSTI also produces the annual Nanotech trade show, which is the field’s largest gathering. Some 3,000 people are expected to attend Nanotech 2006 in Boston this May.

Laudon has spent his career promoting nanotech in both academic and professional roles. In the 1990’s, he worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne. He’s also helped MotorolaMOT and Los Alamos National Laboratory to commercialize new technologies.

Most recently, Laudon has consulted with Boston-area startup firms and venture capitalists. He spoke with IBD from his office in Cambridge.

IBD: What’s the central mission of the NSTI?

Laudon: We started in 1996 in Switzerland. The idea was to create a community to bring people together from different disciplines and sectors that share a commonality around nanotech.

The annual Nano event is our biggest program. This will be our ninth year for the event. We also offer course work, and a leadership program with subcommittees from different industry groups and tech topics that overlap.

The main idea is to get people together who might typically stay within their own domains. We’re doing corss-fertilization.

IBD: How is the group funded and structures?

Laudon: We have multiple sources of revenue. We’ve published over 12,000 pages of technical proceedings and private reports. Our annual event also helps to fund and build the organization. And we partner with the groups that run the exhibits show and job fair at the event.

We’re very much a hybrid organization in the sense that there is no actual nanotech industry. Each vertical industry involved with nanotech has its own trade group. So we’re trying to create a single society for these different disciplines, to bridge the overlapping technologies and industries.

The three main areas include: electronics and microsystems; life sciences and medical/biotech research; and materials technologies, for coatings and polymers and composites and the like.

There is a very definite need for a connection between these different industries. We’ve created a unique environment that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

IBD: What areas of nanotech research seem most promising for near-term commercial development?

Laudon: That’s a tough question. By the time these things reach the commercial state, you don’t hear much about them because they don’t have a nano label. Areas like coatings, polymers and composites have immediate applications in the market today.

On the electronics side, Motorola is talking about bringing carbon nanotube display systems to market in 2007. They should be higher-definition, cheaper and require lower power consumption.

IBD: What long-range ideas seem worth exploring?

Laudon: The National Institutes of Health and the National Cencer Institute have become very active in researching nanotech for drug delivery systems and therapeutic properties. They want to use rationally designed molecules to target specific cancer cells. That could result in more targeted treatments as opposed to radiation.

An even nicer version of that is to instead of dispensing drugs, you bind them to the cancer and only the cancer. Then you can heat up only that one spot, and irradiate only that cancer material. That’s noninvasive and very targeted medicine.

IBD: What’s in store for your upcoming Nanotech 2006 gathering?

Laudon: Some items coming to market are focused on soft nano materials. These are applications in personal-care products, for cosmetics and food science. Essentially, they’re designing molecules to fulfill functions in those industries.

UnileverUN is interested in using nanotech for food preparation, to create new mixtures of particles and molecules. That’s a very powerful market.

IBD: What advice would you give to investors who want to profit from nanotech?

Laudon: We’re getting asked that more and more lately, so we’re creating a newsletter specifically for day traders to look at what new companies are coming out.

Obviously within large companies, such as GEGE or Motorola, it can be hard to assess any stock fluctuations from the release of a new display system. It may not be that huge. But investors who look at how companies are distributing their (intellectual property) portfolios can have an impact in the long run.

I should mention that we run a parallel event at our Nanotech conference called TechConnect. It involves a peer review process to sort through the intellectual property coming from both academia and corporate licensing.

The review process involves investors and large corporations. Those groups work with technology transfer offices to weed out what we feel are the weaker portfolios and then we have presentations from the stronger ones at the event.

IBD: What are some common misconceptions about nanotech?

Laudon: it really is easier to describe science fiction that reality sometimes. When you talk about real nano particle applications to make paints more durable, or care bumpers that are stronger yet lighter, that’s not very exciting stuff.

Unfortunately, many have latched onto concerns about (the escape of) gray goo and nanobots that are a bit out there. That’s why there is a big effort within the National Science Foundation for programs to educate people about what nanotech means for them, from the commercialization side to their own personal use.

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