Taking the NanoPulse -- Help Wanted: Nanotechnology Experts

6 questions to help you make the right hire

It's May, and all across the U.S. newly minted bachelors, masters and PhD grads are job hunting. For businesses, it's the perfect time to add staff from the new crop. If you're a nanotechnology company like mine, you probably have a good feel for what you need and how to go about attracting the right people. But I find that when I speak at non-nanotech industry conferences my Q&A sessions are filled with questions about hiring. How do you find the right person who can bridge the gap between your core business and nanotechnology? Who's the right person to help you find new ways to integrate the power of nanotechnology into products? Where do you start looking? Sure, there are nanotech job listings sprinkled across the web -- from AzoNano to Monster.com -- but how do you write the job description?

Let me be your hiring manager for a few minutes. I've been adding staff to Nanofilm for 25 years, and I've learned a few things -- sometimes through trial and error. If you're serious about leveraging nanotechnology for your company, here are six questions to help guide you.

1. What's your undergraduate degree in?

Often, your most valuable hire is going to have a PhD in nanotechnology, but an undergrad or masters in a traditional field -- chemical engineering, polymer science, biotechnology. That background is going to give you the information you need about skills. Nanotechnology encompasses so many specialties now. If your company is working on cancer research, you need a very different skill set than for green-tech engineering. As a matter of fact, most job placement advisors now suggest that candidates highlight their undergrad or specific study areas on equal footing with nanotechnology expertise for just that reason.

However you write the job description, be sure to include the word "nanotechnology" in it. In a world that runs on search engines, that's the way to be sure people with nano-skills find your opening.

2. What's your real world experience?

My preference is to hire people who have worked in the private sector, usually between their undergrad years and their PhDs. That's because my interest is focused on commercialization, not pure research. I need someone who understands the discipline of balance sheets and boards of directors, limited resources and defined timelines. Nanofilm has never been funded by research grants; we're built on sales. My best hires have often come from large corporations that have a deep R&D capability -- even if the nanotechnology work has not been cutting edge. These are world-wise people who are now ready to make a difference with their nano-skills.

3. How are your problem-solving skills?

Chances are, you've asked that of candidates for your marketing and sales departments -- probably even your accounting team. It's just as crucial a query for scientists. Your best results are going to come from scientists who are interested in results, not just research. Breakthroughs seldom come from straight-line thinking. The ability to look at the same old problems in new ways, some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, will pay off handsomely. In fact, I ran across one study that said "soft skills" were valued about technical skills. Creativity and problem-solving were ranked very important by 60% of respondents, beating technical skill by almost 25 percentage points.

4. Are you "R" or "D"?

That is, do you really need research or development? Are you exploring uncharted waters? Do you have a vision of a completely new approach to your product area? On a scale of 1 to 10, you need researcher that's at least a 7. You'll be looking in university or government labs for that kind of help. Take a look at the National Nanotechnology Initiatives list of government-sponsored research centers. However, I find that most people in industry are looking for a D. They're looking to exploit a core capability -- either by buying and customizing existing intellectual property, or integrating nano-components, nanofilms or nano-additives into current products.

5. Where would you integrate nanotechnology into our product line?

Of course, it's always good to ask a question about your company. A candidate who hasn't done some homework about you is probably not worth considering. More than that, this open-ended question may be the best indicator of the person's current skills and creative thinking abilities. Keep the conversation going with follow-up questions and consider bringing in other key R&D team members to see where the discussion may lead. You'll also get a feel for the chemistry a person could bring to your organization.

6. What about Sales and Marketing?

Once you've made a product, who's going to explain it to prospects and sell it? More important, who understands the market well enough to tell R&D what customers need in the first place? I've had good luck with a homegrown team that knows how to work closely with R&D. Some have experience with high-tech companies, others have learned to "think tech" here.

Many high-tech companies look for candidates with an MBA to bolster their undergrad science degrees. Another interesting place to recruit is the entrepreneurship programs now offered by many universities. There you'll find science graduates who've already chosen to follow a business path.

There'll never be a better time to build your company's nanotechnology capability. The economic recovery seems to be taking hold. The talent is better than ever -- and pretty hungry, too. The know-how to grow your business with nanotechnology innovation is just a help-wanted ad away.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio.

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