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Nanotech being seen as next big thing

States, colleges jockey for research dollars
The Boston Globe
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff

Not so long ago, almost every state wanted a "silicon" of some sort, a forest, a prairie, or even just an alley. Next, their longings turned to "bio." Today, everybody wants "nano."

Nanotechnology is the latest rage among states and regional groups looking to revive battered economies. Nanotech research centers are sprouting on university campuses from Atlanta to Phoenix to Fargo, N.D., and states are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get in on the ground floor of what is alternately described as the "next big thing" and "next industrial revolution."

The booming interest in nanotechnology is on display this week in Boston, where the Nano Science and Technology Institute holds its seventh annual conference. Attendance at the international event has tripled to about 2,000 over the past two years as participation has broadened from mainly scientists and engineers to include venture capitalists, lawyers, start-ups, corporations, and economic development officials.

Despite the promise, nanotechnology is still in its early stages and must overcome a number of hurdles before its widespread commercial adoption. That makes nanotechnology a gamble for states.

"The numbers that are chasing it are high; the numbers that succeed are quite low," said Jeffrey Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council, a Washington-based professional association. "The question is do they have research capacity, labor force, and business base to succeed?"

Nanotechnology is the field that builds devices and structures at the nanoscale, roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Scientists say the technology holds the promise of new materials and products, from lighter, faster, and more powerful computers to clothes that change from warmer to cooler to water-resistant with the weather.

Nanotech initiatives have been launched in at least 25 states, including Massachusetts. New York alone has spent more than $200 million to transform the State University of New York at Albany into a nanotech research center and attract companies, such as International Sematech, the semiconductor industry research consortium, to Albany.

Massachusetts government, so far, has not joined in the spending spree, leaving the chase to its world-renowned universities, which so far have attracted more than $100 million in federal nanotechnology research funds, and more from corporate partners. The state, however, has set aside $20 million to provide matching money to help gain additional federal funds for nanotech and other cutting-edge research.

The nanotech race is reminiscent of other technology gold rushes that once attached the modifier "silicon" to every conceivable topographic feature and more recently has led at least 40 states to commit, cumulatively, hundreds of millions of dollars to grab a piece of the last "next big thing" -- biotechnology. Most, however, have ended up disappointed. A 2002 study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, found that despite big spending on research facilities and incentives from biotech have-nots, the industry remained concentrated in the established centers, such as Boston, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay area.

Heike Mayer, who co-wrote the Brookings study, said that she expects to see a similar pattern in nanotechnology. She said nanotech companies are likely to concentrate in established technology centers, which offer not only research capacity, but also the entrepreneurial networks, venture capital, and professional support services that turn research into commercial products.

Still, many states want to believe nanotech will work for them, and for good reason. The National Science Foundation estimates nanotechnology products could command a $1 trillion market by 2015. And if that's not enough incentive, there's potential for a more immediate payoff: The recently adopted National Nanotechnology Initiative authorizes the biggest pot of federal scientific research money since the space race, $3.7 billion over four years.

In addition, nanotechnology has applications across a wide array of industries, from electronics to textiles to health care, and most states can point to a local advantage. For example, in Oklahoma, which last year launched a nanotechnology initiative, Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City has one of world's few electromagnetic navigation systems, which move catheters to treat irregular heart rhythms.

That technology, in turn, helped launch a start-up, NanoBioMagnetics Inc., which is developing magnetic nanoparticles that can be directed by navigation system to precise locations to stimulate organs or deliver drugs.

"I have a number of friends who say the technology jet stream doesn't come through Oklahoma," said Charles Seeney, president of NanoBioMagnetics. "But we can focus on where we have expertise and grow our niches."

Meanwhile, other states are hoping to grow more than just niches. California is spending $100 million to create the California NanoSystems Institute at University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, while Illinois has invested about $60 million to support nanotech centers at the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and Argonne National Laboratory. Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia have each committed millions to nanotech research, while North Dakota State University is set to open an approximately $35 million research facility in Fargo next week.

In Oregon, despite another difficult budget year, the Legislature approved $21 million for nanotechnology research at the University of Oregon, Oregon State, and Portland State universities.

"This was the only investment the state was able to make," said state Senator Ryan Deckert, a Democrat who spearheaded the effort, "but my gut tells me this is one that really pays off in 10 years."

Robert Gavin can be reached at

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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