Taking The NanoPulse -- With Nanotechnology, Less Is More

It's time for a small product redesign.

Less material. Less weight. Less cost. When you have the ability to work with materials at the nanoscale level, you've unleashed the "less" that's more.

Let's start with reducing the amount of a material. With nanotechnology you have the ability to break down bulk materials into small clusters of molecules, or even single molecules. What's the benefit? Take your choice.

Maybe it's clarity. One of the earliest uses of nanoparticles was in sunscreen. Remember how lifeguards always had that streak of white goop on their noses? It's the zinc oxide that provides the great sun protection, but also the blotchy look. When zinc oxide is broken down into nano-sized particles and distributed throughout the sunscreen, you get all the protection invisibly.

Would you like to reduce cost by making less of a material stretch further? Nanofilm makes a coating for transportation glass that repels water and has easy-clean properties. Less than a coffee cup full of the active ingredient would protect every window on the Empire State Building.

Could these same concepts be applied to lubricants, paints, adhesives, coatings or other products you make? Rustproof paints, super adhesives, frictionless oils - they're all more achievable than you think. The critical path is learning to reliably and permanently distribute the nanomaterials throughout the matrix. And look who's on the leading edge of that development - consumer products! Cosmetic lotions include nano-scale antioxidants and health-promoting cooking oils now use nanometer-scale capsules that move more easily through the body's tissue. If L'Oreal can do it, so can you.

Nanotechnology may be the weight loss plan you've been looking for, too. Imagine you're developing a new building material and want the strength of carbon steel but can't afford the weight. Enter nanocomposites. Carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel and only 1/6th of the weight. You won't be seeing this product at Home Depot next week. It's too expensive as yet. However, the technology is already at work in sporting goods equipment like tennis rackets and baseball bats. MIT is developing lightweight combat jackets. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a joint project with the U.S. Army called the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnolgies.) And simple carbon nanoparticles have been used as composite fibers concrete. And there's more to come: last year I helped judge a nanotechnology business idea competition in which a finalist proposed automotive bumpers laced with nanostructures to absorb crash forces much for effectively than anything currently available.

The holy grail of "less is more" is electronic miniaturization. Nanotechnology is at the pioneering forefront of it, from computer chips to solar cells to the iPod Nano. But we'll save that for another column.

To be sure, there's still much work to be done if we're going to mainstream nanotechnology into more manufacturing companies. However, beginning the process now will put you ahead of the competition. How can you start? Unless you have deep internal resources, partner with one of the many companies already demonstrating proven capabilities in your area. Finding the right partner will move you most quickly along the learning curve helping you manage start-up costs, application development and scale-up. If you'd like guidance, I'd be glad to share my experience. Just send me an email.

Answering your questions:

Q: Where do I get information on how to evaluate specific positions in my nanotechnology company for pay competitiveness? How do we decide how to pay employees in this industry?

A: Your question is perfectly timed. According to National Science Foundation estimates, the US will need 800,000 to 1 million nanotechnology workers in the next decade. Fortunately, the first nanotechnology salary survey I've seen will be out sometime in February at smalltimes.com. Like all industries, nanotechnology salary is governed by a number of variables - location, education, experience, even the prestige of the hiring organization. If you want to develop your own yardstick, you'll find fodder at the nanotech job websites: tinytechjobs.com, nanovip.com, workingin-nanotechnology.com. Maybe add some data from industries that have salary surveys that overlap with nanotech, like engineersalary.com.

Q: We are a group of expert entrepreneurs trying to penetrate the nanotech industry in nanoscale tools. Do you have any source that defines this segment from both technological and commercial aspects?

A: An industry research report not long ago compared the nanotech field to the California gold rush. The folks who got rich were selling picks and shovels. That's the good news. But while the gold rushers all went to the same mines to do the same work, nanotechnology research is much more fragmented. Even though the tools may be similar, the hot buttons of chip fabricators are far different from pharmaceutical researchers. I'd recommend you pick industries first, then do a classic market research study: customer needs, number of competitors, barriers to entry and so forth. You can also garner market insights from your competition's web sites and literature. Reading the trades or a web search will help you identify them.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, ltd, located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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