Nano Science and Technology Institute

TechConnect Speeds Lab-to-Marketplace Road via Community Event to Unite Innovators, Users, VCs

The road from lab-to-marketplace may get much smoother thanks to a new community-building event designed to bring together inventors, commercial customers and investors. Nano World News reports on the first TechConnect Summit, where executives from BASF, Ford, Merck, Motorola and many other firms met up-close with start-ups from various industry sectors, including energy, electronics, materials, and biotechnology. Nano World News also sits down with Marcos Gomez, Innovation Manager for BASF Future Business within BASF Venture Capital America Inc., and TechConnect board member, to discuss what emerging tech sectors BASF says are hot in 2006 – and how start-ups can get attention for their IP.
The often-bumpy road from lab-to-marketplace may get much smoother for innovators in nano and other cutting-edge sectors, thanks to a new community-building event.

The inaugural TechConnect Summit brought together execs from top corporations including Analog Devices, BASF, Cabot, Genzyme, and Sanyo with executives and inventors from sectors including the energy, electronics, materials, and biotechnology sectors. Venture capital firms and tech transfer offices from around the world also participated.

Marcos Gomez, an Innovation Manager for BASF Future Business, said TechConnect’s format provided networking opportunities he hasn’t found elsewhere. Gomez’ job is to discover and invest in promising next-wave technologies and business plans on behalf of BASF. Among his top areas of interests are: energy, physical materials, life sciences and electronics.

“TechConnect was fantastic for networking,” Gomez told NWN. “The format allowed us to get formal presentations about some new innovations and also have informal one-on-one discussions during the luncheon and evening reception. There is really nothing else like this out there. It brought together representatives from VCs, start-ups, academia, tech transfer offices and large industry.”

Building a way to better connect innovators to marketplace players is TechConnect’s core focus, said Matthew Laudon, Ph.D., TechConnect’s Executive Director. “There is a gap today between those people who explore the newest technologies, materials, tools, software and manufacturing innovations and investors or industrial companies who could benefit from such innovation,” Laudon said. “TechConnect is a community-building organization which aims to bridge this gap.”

Laudon is also the Executive Director of the Nanotech 2006 and its sponsoring community, the Nano Science and Technology Institute.

A Look at TechConnect’s Gap-Bridging Benefits — A Discussion with Marcos Gomez, BASF Ventures

Marcos Gomez, Innovation Manager with BASF Future Business

NWN: What attracted you to be a board member for TechConnect?
GOMEZ: At BASF, we like NSTI’s approach to the science and commercialization issues facing nanotechnology. And, TechConnect is a very good extension of this approach. We view nanotechnology as a conjunction of many existing sciences, including engineering, physics, chemistry and biotechnology. TechConnect gives us a good overview of some interesting companies and projects in those areas.

NWN: So, what sectors is BASF most interested in exploring these days?
GOMEZ: We now have a strong interest in sectors such as electronics, energy, and of course basic materials sciences with implications in physics, chemistry and biology.

NWN: And nanotechnology?
GOMEZ: Well, that’s an interesting question. To some extent, BASF has been involved in nanotechnologies for more than 60 years. BASF is one of the world's leading companies in the field of chemical nanotechnology, which it is already using in numerous established fields of activity such as polymer dispersions, pigments and catalysts. One of our biggest businesses is polymer dispersions, which runs 100-300 nanometers in diameters.

NWN: So, to BASF nanotechnology is not something too exotic for investment?
GOMEZ: We look at nanotechnology not as one, new science, but as a conjunction of sciences that cross all our main areas of interest. Nanotechnology gives BASF the opportunity to provide our customers with products of superior properties and to open up new markets with new products displaying novel properties. BASF is committed to invest €180 million in R&D activities in the so-called Growth Cluster Nanotechnology in the period 2006-2008.

NWN: What about manufacturing processes or modeling techniques?
GOMEZ: Manufacturing is also a key interest. Another big business for BASF is catalysts for manufacturing materials. Our core knowledge for that comes from learning how molecular surfaces are modified. So, modeling and molecular sciences are also interesting to us.

NWN: At TechConnect did you find any interesting start-ups or technology projects?
GOMEZ: I heard from a couple of very promising energy start-ups [at TechConnect] looking to cut the cost of solar panels. One start-up is looking at solar concentrators in silicon solar panels based on crystalline silicon [which could cut the need for silicon by 75%], and the other is looking at ways to use print and spray coatings to boost the efficiencies in thin film solar cells. Both of these were very interesting.

NWN: What did you like most about these companies?
GOMEZ: These companies had good technology that addressed a growing need, cutting the costs for alternative energies. And, they also thought out how they could provide solutions and technologies that could easily be adopted by major solar manufactures.

NWN: Are there nanotechnology areas where BASF is just not interested at the moment?
GOMEZ: We are not working on therapeutic applications of nanotechnology since it is outside our core competences. In the area of materials, BASF is not very active in the area of carbon nanotubes at the moment. There are a couple of reasons. First, there simply is not a good, cost-effective manufacturing process. This is especially true for single-walled CNTs. Having a reliable supplier of large volumes is also a big problem. But even if those manufacturing issues could be solved, the market could be challenging. At the moment, many of the electronic firms that are looking to use CNTs grow them themselves and have already integrated them in the devices.

NWN: So BASF is just skeptical about CNTs in general?
GOMEZ: Well, we think there could be some opportunities in the area of blending CNTs with polymers, making stronger materials as well as conductive polymers and fibers. But for now, reliability and volume manufacturing is still a problem.

NWN: Just a quick general question about the state of nanotechnology start-ups. Overall, is nanotechnology mature enough to actively pursue commercialization or IPO’s?
GOMEZ: Some nanotech start-ups may be ready, but on the whole, I think it is an illusion that the majority of nanotech companies will have a product within 1 to 2 years. We think you have to think in timeframes of 5 years or more.

NWN: Are there lessons other start-ups can learn from you about how to get noticed?
GOMEZ: At BASF Ventures, we are looking to gauge companies in 4 areas. Companies must have good technology, a workable business plan, understand the market (including identifying their customers and how to sell to them), and know their competition. The area where companies do the worst is on knowing their competition.

NWN: It sounds simple enough.
GOMEZ: It is very simple, but often we find companies that just don’t have all of these points covered. Either companies focus so much on their core technology that they have no idea of how they will get it into the market. Or, we find companies that understand the market, but their technology isn’t good enough to meet the demand, or they don’t own the technology they are using.

NWN: So, with that said: Any simple words of advice for start-ups that feel they have both a good technology and a business plan?
GOMEZ: I would simply say to [start-ups]: Just do your homework and make it simple. ‘Present your technology, your value proposition, your view of the market, who are your competitors and why you are best.’ If a start-up cannot answer these simple questions, that’s a sign they aren’t ready.RSS feed of Nano World News

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