Taking The NanoPulse -- Wall Street Nano vs. Main Street Nano

Feb. 14, 2008
How to change the rules in a changing economy.

Wham! Did you hear that? It's the door slamming on Wall Street. I think it's no secret that we're in for a rough patch in the global economy, and it's already taking its toll on the nano-innovation market. There's simply not much patience for the long-range. Venture capitalists and investment bankers are looking for higher ground, and it's leaving some nano-entrepreneurs in deep water. In fact, some predictions suggest nanotechnology is in a trough that won't return to boom until 2011. There's even talk of Congress cutting back on nano support in the face of bigger economic issues.

This is the place where I could rail about how short-sighted that approach is -- and it is. But I'd just be joining pundits in dozens of other sectors preaching the same time-proven message. So let me take another tack.

Regardless of what you see on Wall Street, nanotechnology is still a Main Street technology. You can keep moving ahead if you adapt to the current conditions and real-world needs. How do I know? I recently attended CoDev 2008, a conference on partnering. The room was filled with big name multinationals as well as R&D entrepreneurs. These companies were hungry for innovations and are still looking for nano-solutions. But there's a difference. In many cases, the search for huge breakthrough technology has been put on the back burner. The focus now is on near-term, achievable solutions. In other words, the economy has people thinking smaller. And that's an opportunity waiting for anyone with the eyes to see it.

Let me give you an example. I was touting the potential of a nano-coating that could revolutionize performance of some plastics to a colleague. The response? What his company really needs right now is a nano-ized version of an existing coating that simply dries faster.There's nothing sexy about that. It won't make headlines. But it would make a difference that a company is ready to pay for -- right now.

So, if this is the new reality, what's the next move for nano-entrepreneurs and the companies that would benefit from their work? Focus on Main Street. It's time to scale back the vision a bit -- or at least slot near-term products into the R&D pipeline in front of those breakthrough applications. Let's set our sights on funding the dream project with products that deliver immediate results. We need to be our own VCs, investment bankers and government grants.

Next question? How do you match needs and capabilities in this new Main Street market? Those rules haven't changed. It's still all about partnerships. I've written extensively on the topic of partnerships in the last few months, so let me just offer a few reminders.

The path from lab to factory floor can be tricky. Nano-entrepreneurs need to do their homework to know how their technology can be integrated, coated, painted, cured, built or blended. And nanotech buying companies? If you think commercialized products will spring fully formed from the forehead of a nano-Zeus, think again. You're building outside partnerships because your R&D department is overworked --- or non-existent. You can't expect nano-companies to be as steeped in your business as internal sources. Meet your partners halfway and expect to fund a least part of their learning curve.

Here's another tip. Both sides should consider joining forces with a nano-integrator. What's that? It's a midsize company that already has experience developing or using nanotechnology. It's someone who's ready and able to help less experienced companies find good matches and bridge the knowledge gaps.

What's the next step? Follow a much-repeated adage you already know: put your head down and keep pushing. People who commit to moving ahead in tough times come out ahead on the other side. People who don't, sometimes don't come out at all.

What's your plan?

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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