Bringing nanotechnology to market

08/06/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By REBECCA LIPCHITZ

LOWELL -- Despite rumors that the phrase 'nanotechnology' will instantly bring venture capital to startups, such businesses face some unique and perennial challenges in making the transition from idea to market.

The barriers to bringing nanotechnology to market was the subject of a discussion last night at the Merrimack Valley Venture Forum, held at UMass Lowell in the Wannalancit Mill.

'It's more than just a technology,' said panelist Howard Berke, chairman and CEO of Konarka Technologies Inc., a Lowell company using nanotechnology developed and launched as a business by UMass Lowell. 'VCs want to hear that there is a business independent of the love of the technology. Does it do the job at an economically acceptable price and performance?'

One perception that limits the development of nanotechnologies is that they are an industry unto themselves. The application of nanotechnology is already being done in many industries, from health care to textiles to automotive and cell-phone manufcturing.

'It's not going to be a new technology, it's going to be an economic movement,' said state Sen. Steve Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat who attended the event.

Another barrier to making a nanotech-based idea into a full-fledged business is that the materials created in nanotech labs are often created in ways that won't lend themselves to manufacturing large volumes of the product.

'There is a long lead time for unique manufacturing techniques,' said UMass Lowell professor Dr. Joey L. Mead. 'That requires thinking differently about how you do your science.'

But developing new ways to manufacuture tank-truck loads of materials that have so far only been created in test tubes is just a matter of time, panelists say. The 'dark side' of nanotechnology development, according to Berke, is fighting public perception that it is dangerous.

Like fears in the 1970s about antibiotics, in the 1980s about genomics and recent concerns about stem-cell research, Berke said, some unknown aspects of making products on the molecular level have a few people thinking twice about picking up the hot potato of nanotechnology.

'In Europe, there is concern about the deployment of nano-tech-engineered products into the enviroment. It is a concern to most manufacturers in how to protect workers. The exposures to these materials are not well characterized,' Berke said.

Panelist Dr. Julie Chen, professor of mechanical engineering at UMass Lowell, said the university is in a unique position to study the environmental effects of nanotech manufacturing, since it houses a School of Health & Environment and a nanotechnology research center.

UMass Lowell Chancellor Dr. William Hogan said the university has a very focused mission when it comes to nanotech.

'We need to develop advanced manufacturing techniques to support nano-based products. If Massachusetts is going to enjoy a significant economic impact, this state will have to lead the way in translating nanotechnology to industry,' he said.

Jack Wilson, president of UMass, said the university's role in nanotech research will have statewide effects.

'There is no path to economic and social development in Massachusetts that doesn't go through UMass.'

Rebecca Lipchitz's e-mail address is rlipchitz@lowellsun.com .