23 July 2007

"Nanotech Disappoints in Europe"

For starters, this recent article in Business Week goes to the heart of some fundamental confusion about this thing we call nanotechnology: what in blazes is it?

Key quote:
...despite massive injections of government money, analysts say Europe is actually doing a worse job of commercializing nanotech than other regions. According to Tim Harper, a nanotechnology specialist at London consultancy Cientifica, while European firms have emphasized research into materials such as nanotubes and nanopowders, U.S. startups have focused more on real-world applications for the technology.

In layman's terms, that has translated into a handful of U.S. products that frankly seem almost trivial, such as stain-resistant trousers and more durable tennis balls. But the U.S. also is laying the groundwork for success in years to come by wringing out about twice as many nanotech patents as Europe has from roughly similar levels of public research funding, says Spinverse, a Finnish consultancy that advises governments and startups on nanotechnology.
Early on, author Jennifer Schenker's definition of "nanotechnology" makes good sense: "the cutting-edge science of manipulating materials and microscopic devices at the atomic level." Yet she seems to forget that definition after it appears in the first paragraph. From then on, her focus is on the development of novel materials, period, and how disappointing that has been for European businesses.

But what of European powerhouses such as semiconductor toolmakers ASML or Zeiss? Are we to regard their relentless pursuit of feature sizes of a few dozen nanometers as something other than "nanotech"? What of the groundbreaking video-rate atomic force microscopes from the UK's Infinitesima, or the nanoscale metrology breakthroughs from Renishaw or Heidenhain? What about Germany's Physik Instrumente (full disclosure: my employer), by far the world's dominant nanopositioning manufacturer for industry and research? Or Germany's Ormecon, whose new solderable trace material--90% organic nanometal--offers immense energy savings for circuit-board usage? There are dozens and dozens of examples.

The issue isn't that these success stories don't involve "nano." Clearly they do. Instead, it relates to two problems:

First is the press' penchant for nay-saying. There's little risk in ridiculing a mighty endeavor as failed (especially one that is highly touted or--let's face it--over-hyped), and readers eat it up whether or not such negativity is unwarranted or premature. After all, most readers don't attempt mighty endeavors, else they'd be in the stories rather than reading them. I'd remind the author, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." [T. Roosevelt] Such appreciation is too rare in journalism today; writers seem to find it mawkish and sentimental, rather than essential to human progress.

The second problem lies in the hidden premise in Schenker's fifth paragraph, already quoted above. Take another look: "Yet despite massive injections of government money, analysts say Europe is actually doing a worse job of commercializing nanotech than other regions." [Emphasis is mine.] The blunt fact is, governments are lousy at investing because it's not their money. Inherent in governmental investing is a perversion of the risk/reward equation. It also percolates a top-down approach to the marketplace which can disconnect managers from customers. Changing Schenker's "Yet despite" to "Because of" illuminates a different premise that just might hold some merit.

Happily, towards the end of the article, Schenker gets it right:
"Europe's weaker entrepreneurial culture also hurts startup activity. When nanotech companies are formed in Europe they often lack clear business models and exit strategies, and their teams tend to be short on commercial experience. That's one reason Europe gets a proportionally smaller share of global nanotechnology venture capital investment, according to Spinverse. And though public funding makes up some of the difference, it doesn't offer venture capital's other benefits, including strong industry knowledge and networking."
Even more happily, there is good reason to expect that Europe's "weaker entrepreneurial culture" is strengthening steadily. I look forward to the day when Business Week salutes European entrepreneurs' triumph of high achievement while exalting those who failed while daring greatly.
Meanwhile, if you want to see someone succeeding at mighty endeavors in the nano-materials arena that Business Week seems to think is the whole extent of nanotechnology, read about David Soane. I met him and his charming wife Zoya last Fall at the 4th International Symposium on Nanomanufacturing, where he gave the concluding keynote address, and could not have been more impressed, nor more confident of his ventures' success.

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