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Friday, October 2, 2009

Two decades of nanotechnology opportunities

Visiting IBM’s Almaden Research Center Thursday, I was reminded that 20 years ago this week, an IBM ARC researcher made history by being the first person to move a single atom.

Don Eigler is perhaps better known for his November 1989 accomplishment: arranging 35 Xenon atoms to spell out “IBM.” Either way, these were major breakthroughs that enabled the subsequent growth of nanotechnology-related products and startups.

I must confess my limited knowledge of the technological and business aspects of nanotechnology. However, it was clear from my visit with ARC associate director Moidin Mohiuddin that IBM is continuing to invest in developing these technologies, part of decades of materials science basic research. Once this technology had direct application to IBM products (such as disk drive recording heads or coatings), today IBM will also out-license its technology as part of its seminal open innovation strategy.

As it turns out, two of my fellow Anteaters (UCI alumni) are not so ignorant. Jennifer Woolley and Renee Rottner published an article last year on nanotechnology startups in Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice — one of the top entrepreneurship journals.

Their article focused on the geographic distribution of nanotechnology startups. Their conclusion was that states that most aggressively supported nanotechnology research and commercialization had the most activity. (As a cynical ex-politics reporter, I might posit an alternate hypothesis — that the regions with the strongest nanotechnology base lobbied most effectively for state spending — but I haven’t seen their data).

For those trying to understand the phenomenon of nanotechnology-related entrepreneurship, this will be a seminal piece. Jennifer is continuing to do research in this area, so I recommend her work for those interested in the topic (despite her working for arch-rival Santa Clara).