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Nanotech 2004 conference: No small feat for Boston

Boston Business Journal
By Alexander Soule, Journal Staff
From the February 6, 2004 print edition

Sandip Tiwari has never heard of the conference called Nanotech 2004, but do not assume that is analogous to Tom Brady being oblivious to the Super Bowl.

In a month's time, Boston will host the biggest conference in the world that brings together people interested in creating the tiniest structures -- according, at least, to the organizers, who say that businesspeople will join academics at the event.

It took eight years to land Nanotech 2004, but let's be thankful -- the show could have very well skipped Boston in favor of Albany, N.Y., in order to grant professor Tiwari of Cornell University home-field advantage.

In December, the National Science Foundation awarded $70 million over five years to Cornell and 12 other schools to form the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network NNIN. Cornell's bid (which included Harvard University and Stanford University) beat out bids by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and as many as 60 other schools for the project.

How did MIT allow Cornell, Harvard and Stanford to swipe $14 million a year for five years? Even by MIT standards, $70 million is a big number. In fact, that is the shortfall that institute president Charles Vest forecast for 2005 in the school's annual report.

While MIT would not have received the whole NNIN purse, it likely would have gotten more than the $5 million the MIT Deshpande Center for Innovation is ponying up over the same period for similar projects. And it would have cemented its claim to being the epicenter of nanotech innovation.

"This will have a big, humongous impact on what we are doing," said Tiwari, director of the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility. He organized the school's bid.

"The amount of effort you have to go to pull together resources to do something like this -- it really has a very important impact for the nation," he said.

A professor at MIT, who asked not to be named, cautioned not to confuse the NNIN award as any kind of a negative comment on the quality of nanotech research going at MIT. But he added that this was a contract the institute really wanted to have in order to coordinate projects at various schools, and that MIT faculty feel that congressional politics tilted the field in favor of Cornell.

MIT has already brought together nanotechnology observers from different institutions.

Six weeks before the NNIN grant went out, the Deshpande Center held its first nanotechnology venture conference, showing off projects at 10 Massachusetts schools.

For instance, University of Massachusetts Amherst, which launched its new MassNanoTech research center last month, kicked off a number of projects 25 researchers have worked on supported by $23 million in federal funding.

"Due to the size and scope of MIT's involvement in nanotechnology, we illustrate example projects only," stated a report by the Deshpande Center describing the nanotech activity.

My guess is that MIT's failure to win the NNIN deal was not the result of a similar form of shorthand. If it was, that was just the sort of problem the Deshpande Center was formed to solve.

Desphande Center executive director Krisztina Holly said that she was only vaguely aware of the NNIN machinations. Too bad -- maybe she could have served as an extra offensive coordinator to help the bid along.

The center does not exist to coordinate federal funding at MIT. But it is supposed to "comb and tease through," as Holly puts it, technologies at MIT that could in time be commercialized. It is supposed to be the source for research at MIT that might one day see the light of day in industry.

Winning the NNIN bid in 2003, less than two years after MIT won $50 million in U.S. Army funding for the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, could have in effect handed the institute a minidynasty in the discipline, with both scientific and organizational resources devoted to furthering the discipline.

Instead, it is on the sideline as Cornell calls research audibles at a number of schools nationally.

In a few weeks, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies completes its first design competition. Entries include a system to convert excess body heat to electrical energy. If it works, that is boggling. I am sure infantrymen wouldn't mind shedding those bulky brick batteries to become walking, talking Duracells in the desert.

That is the kind of payoff the Army may get for its $50 million investment in MIT. No offense to professor Tiwari and his colleagues in NNIN, but with that kind of momentum, isn't it best for the nation that MIT lead the country's development of nanotechnology?

ALEXANDER SOULE, who covers telecom, networking and startups for the Boston Business Journal, can be reached by e-mail at

© 2004 American City Business Journals Inc.

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