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The future is small

Senators, scientists and investors chase the big payoff in the tiny-minded nanotech field 4.5/30/1: Oregon lawmakers, institutions ask for $30 million to get started

For Oregon, small could be the next Big Thing.

Just ask the clutch of researchers, business leaders, politicians and even a few venturesome venture capitalists who believe nanotechnology Ñ the science and manufacture of ultrasmall things Ñ could make Oregon a scientific and economic powerhouse during the next decade.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sees the potential. He is one of the principal sponsors of a bill called the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which asks Congress to spend $677 million on nanotech research.

Wyden's bill would create a national program that will award grants to nanotech researchers around the country. The senator hopes to steer some money from the program to Oregon in a bid to make it a national nanotech leader.

'The world is basically going to line up for the fruits of this field,' he told the Tribune recently after attending a Washington, D.C., symposium on nanotechnology's potential. 'There is exciting work going on at several (Oregon) universities and at Intel and other Oregon companies.

'Oregon's got a real chance,' Wyden said, to profit from this emerging field, which many believe will make billions over the next decade.

Indeed, a number of states are looking to nanotech as an economic savior. Its enthusiasts in Oregon say the state has the ingredients to develop a strong nanotech program, particularly in semiconductor manufacturing and biotechnology, two areas where nanotech research already shows great promise and where Oregon has considerable strength.

'If nanotech is the next new thing, as a community we are incredibly well positioned to take advantage of it,' said David Chen, a partner in OVP Venture Partners, a 20-year-old venture capital firm with offices in Portland and Seattle.

'We don't have to talk about it as if it's the future,' said Chen, who is investing time and energy (if not yet money) asking leaders of Oregon's public, private and university sectors to collaborate to help the state establish its footing in this evolving industry. 'We have the researchers, the scientists. What we're wrestling with is what's the magic pill to jump-start the industry.'

Chen's enthusiasm is not yet shared by many venture capitalists, who are wary of investing in 'things that have great ideas and great names, but no real tangible products in the near term,' says Matt Petkun, an equities analyst who covers the semiconductor industry for D.A. Davidson in Portland.

'Right now, nanotechnology is primarily research and development,' Petkun said. Most money for nanotech is coming from government research grants and major industrial conglomerates, he said.

There are other skeptics besides investors who want quicker returns on their money than nanotech promises. Some scientists worry about unintended consequences, much as they do about gene splicing and cloning.

Bill Joy, chief scientist for Sun Microsystems Inc., is a major critic of nanotech research. He believes that manipulating atoms and molecules could result in devastating accidents if small-scale machines or microorganisms are mishandled and get out of control.

Michael Crichton's current best seller, 'Prey,' takes those worries to extremes. In the novel, a swarm of 'nanorobots' replicate themselves and bring about death and destruction.

'These fears are entirely misplaced,' said John Carruthers, former director of components research at Intel Corp. and head of the department of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering.

'Nobody is working on nano-objects that have any separate intelligence,' said Carruthers, who is helping to establish a Northwest nanotechnology program involving universities and labs in Oregon and Washington state.

'All the work is focused on nanostructures and devices for use in computing and sensing.'

Nanotechnology will be important in biological research, too; however, Carruthers said that when that research is in full bloom, scientists will 'make sure that we understand any unintended applications.'

Scale suits many sectors

Nanotechnology refers to research done at the scale of a nanometer, a measurement that is one-billionth of a meter. (A meter is roughly equivalent to a yard. For reference, think of a yardstick divided into a billion units.)

Based on the idea that 'smaller is better,' generations of researchers have been developing smaller, cheaper, faster devices. Think computers, transistors, cell phones.

So the 'getting small' concept isn't new. What is new is the attention the making of small things is now getting from scientists, government officials, industry leaders and venture capitalists who see nanotech as delivering major advances in almost every economic sector including medicine, electronics, agriculture, telecommunications and the environment.

From the scientist's (and consumer's) point of view, nanotech has exciting possibilities.

Wyden envisions 'smart drugs' that treat cancers, cheap flat-screen televisions and tiny 'bulldozers' that unclog arteries. Scientists are working on 'nanoparticles' that would deliver drugs to specific tumors or heart defects or other health conditions. They also are working to make computer microchips smaller and smaller.

Others talk about storing the entire Library of Congress ÑÊwhich contains more than 120 million books, manuscripts, photos, maps and recordings stacked on 530 miles of shelves ÑÊon a device the size of a sugar cube. Already, scientists have created nanotubes Ñ tiny tubes made of carbon that are 100 times the strength of steel Ñ and are looking for ways to use them. Much DNA research is being done at the nanotech scale.

From an economic development standpoint, all of this research should spawn a new multibillion-dollar industry employing untold numbers ÑÊsomewhere. Whether Oregon will be one of the 'somewheres' is the question.

On the move

Nanotech supporters in the state are moving on several fronts:

• The Oregon Council of Knowledge and Economic Development Ñ which promotes 'knowledge-based' economic development in Oregon Ñ recommended in a recent report that the state work to establish at least three research centers by 2010. They will create new products that can be commercialized and become the basis for spinoff companies.

The first center, the report says, should focus on 'multiscale materials and devices,' products made at microscopic and submicroscopic levels.

• Researchers from five Oregon universities already involved in a variety of small-scale projects Ñ Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland State University and OGI Ñ are establishing a partnership with researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., which has a well-funded nanoscience program.

The Northwest program will allow the researchers to share expertise and equipment, said OGI's Carruthers, one of the project's instigators.

'On that basis, we can go nationally and make a request for funding,' he said.

• Oregon Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, has introduced a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would set aside at least $30 million for nanotech research.

• OSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research center, already are collaborating. They recently established the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute at OSU.

The institute will develop and market products created through microtechnology, which works at a scale slightly larger than nanotech.

Its research projects include small systems that would produce hydrogen for fuel cells for cars; lightweight, portable devices that can keep enclosed biohazard suits cool for hours; and biosensors the size of a lapel pin that can detect chemical or biological agents.

Another advantage: Oregon is home to companies such as IDC Inc. in Portland and FEI Co. in Hillsboro, which make 'tools' for nanotech researchers.

Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, InFocus, Pixelworks Inc. and Electroglas Inc. in Corvallis already are producing small-scale machinery and processors.

Oregon's niche, as identified by the Council on Knowledge and Economic Development report, should be in 'multiscale materials and devices,' or MMD.

'It's the area that bridges the micro and the nano level,' said Jim Johnson, formerly Intel's top executive in Oregon and a member of the council. 'It's not a huge market segment yet. As advances occur, that intersection will become more important.

'We need a critical mass of research dollars, we need (funds) to build buildings and equip labs and to give scholarships to Ph.D. candidates,' Johnson said.

Deckert's $30 million, he notes, would be used for those purposes.

'That, in turn, would get us to money from the federal government. If we can grow faster than anyone else, we'll become a world leader (in MMD),' Johnson said.

Though the state is facing a budget crisis, Deckert said he believes he can persuade the Legislature to find at least $30 million for the research.

'If we don't do something to start new companies and get ahead of the curve in transferring university research into jobs, we'll always be looking at Seattle or Boston or Silicon Valley,' Deckert said.

Likewise, Wyden is optimistic that the Republican-controlled Congress will approve his bill, despite the country's massive budget deficit and the need to fund the war in Iraq.

For one thing, it has bipartisan support. The bill's other cosponsor is Sen. George Allen, R-Va. And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has promised to put the bill on a fast track and it should get a hearing this spring, Wyden said.

Contact Mary Bellotti at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..