Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd.
Welcome to our second column on all aspects of nanotechnology. You've probably read enough to know that nanotechnology could make a difference in your products. However, you may not have the resources or expertise to do R&D in a new field that's changing so rapidly.
One of the best ways to evaluate nanotech is a supplier partnership with a nanotechnology company. But, how do you choose a partner who can help you achieve your goals? Where do you start? For our purposes, I'm going to focus on applications that are ready for primetime. Early-stage development of a technology with a five-year or longer horizon can yield breakthrough results, but it requires a very different approach than near-term efforts and that's a topic for another column.
Let's start with the assumption that you're seeking a potential partner whose science is already proven and is directly applicable to a product you wish you had ready for sale yesterday. Now what?
Look for nanotechnology partners who have a true understanding of products and consumers. That means they've gotten out of the lab and explored the attributes required in the real world. An example in the nanofilms field is automotive coatings. Will a coating still be functional in five years? Ten? Can it stand up to Arizona sun or mechanized car wash chemicals? These types of question need to be presented early to nanotechnology companies. It will weed out the weak and give marching orders to the strong.
Be diligent about your potential partners' understanding of their role in your product, too. A recent study by Lux Research, the nanotechnology consulting organization, confirms that this is a common area of conflict. Lux found that manufacturers lament the fact that nanotech companies sometimes focus on very specific value-added features or benefits. However, the manufacturers need nano-specialists who think about products at a systemic level. Be sure your partners have the knowledge to integrate with an established product and processes already in place. Are they clear on how to disperse their material in yours? Do they understand how you extrude your products, apply your coatings, assemble finished pieces? Can their technology survive the manufacturing environment, which can be very different from end use?
One way to measure a nano-company's systemic preparedness is to see if their staff includes both R&D scientists and Applications scientists. In my experience, that combination is more likely to deliver great science that works great in your product. In my company, I insist that scientists go into the field for hands-on understanding and hands-on responsibility for our role in products.
Work by industry consultants at The Nanotechnology Company adds another important caution: be sure that a nanotechnology partner understands your entire product roadmap. Very often, smaller companies expect that their solution is immediately applicable to a larger company's product line. If new technological innovations cannot or will not be integrated into product roadmaps for perhaps five years or more, make that clear. On the other hand, if a rapid scale-up is planned, be sure that your partner is ready. There's a big difference between making batches of a material in the lab, running it in a test environment and needing tanker loads for full production. It is useful to arrange early conversations between nano-specialists and your product managers so that everyone is on the same page.
Of course, like any new partner, a nano-company can't know everything about your company and products. And, as the smaller company in this David and Goliath scenario, nano-companies may need some TLC. To begin, small companies are justifiably concerned about loss of control of their intellectual property, or even of their business. The more willing you are to share access to knowledge, numbers and even clients, the more fruitful your partnership. A well-known global specialty chemicals and materials company has established a unique approach. They've developed a network of nanotechnology companies and given them direct access to Cabot customers. The nano-companies work with the customers to identify problems and nanotechnology solutions that Cabot can then implement. Profits from the innovation are shared.
The bottom line? A partnership with the right nanotechnology company can be the fastest route to adding extraordinary advantages to your product line. Luckily, strong partners are not difficult to find -- once you know how to look for them. Good luck in your search.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, ltd, located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].