Monday, February 10, 2014

Nanotechnology and industry - winning and losing

Thanks to Paul Weiss for pointing me to this article, which asks rather breathlessly (in response to this [pdf] report from the US Government Accountability Office) whether the US is somehow fumbling or screwing up the industrial deployment of nanotechnology.  The US government has sunk quite a bit of money over the last decade and a half into basic (and some applied) research on nanoscale science, clearly with the idea that this will energize the US economy in the long run by producing nanotechnology-based products in industry.  There is clearly some concern about whether the science is really making the transition to manufacturing, or is it stuck in the "valley of death". 

In my view, getting from largely university-based basic research to large scale industrial deployment of a technology is inherently difficult - at least as challenging and probably more so than what used to take place when companies broadly supported comparatively long-term industrial research.  To put it another way, it was always difficult to get something out of the lab and into a product at Bell Labs and IBM in the heyday of industrial research, and that involved technology transfer within a single company.  These days, companies are effectively trying to outsource much basic research to universities - super-short time horizons have combined with market forces to kill most US industrial long-term (that is, more than 3 years from a clear product) research (at least on the physical sciences side).  Companies have to get past the "not invented here" barrier, the fact that universities do not function like industrial labs, the fact that universities do not have the detailed knowledge or specialized equipment of scaled-up manufacturing, potential intellectual property challenges, general risk-averse behavior, etc.

My point is, getting from basic research to industrial deployment is a long, difficult path under the best of circumstances.   With our current system where companies are generally risk averse and they (and depressingly investors) are concerned with next quarter's stock price rather than where they will be in a decade, the situation is extremely challenging.  Be patient, don't panic, but don't be surprised if companies (likely foreign ones) with in-house research and a longer view are able to do well in the nano regime.


gilroy0 said...

I think it's sad that we consider "long-term" to be "more than 3 years".

Douglas Natelson said...

Bernie, I'd originally written "more than 18 months", but I decided to be generous.

Don Monroe said...

I asked this question of Greg Blonder (a former manager at Bell Labs, now a VC and designer) about ten years ago. His response was that nanotechnology is that nanotechnology is essentially materials, and that historically materials innovations always take 15-20 years to penetrate a new market (if ever).

Douglas Natelson said...

Hi Don - I think people who have no experience w/ high tech industrial R&D don't have a feel for how tough this can be. This is why setting unrealistic expectations through the media can be bad, though of course the public often has a short memory. I'll write a post about NIF in the next couple of days, where this issue also comes up.