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When Cool is not Enough

Despite their early success in raising money, Quantum Dot’s founders are aware that the company is entering a do-or-die period. Without a blockbuster product in the immediate future, the company is in a vulnerable stage common to many startups. “Every opportunity has a time window. There are always competing technologies,” says co-founder Manian. “We may be successful in three years, but if someone has come up with an alternative in two years, the train will have already left the station.” Manian says the company has milestones. “Looking at the barriers you encounter, you make subjective calls: Will it be solved in a week or will it take two years? If it will take two years, you immediately need to look for alternatives or a safety net.” The coolness factor, he warns, “will wear off very quickly if you can’t support it with economic benefits. It has to result in real-world applications.”

This sense of urgency in developing uses for the nanoparticles has drawn some of the best and brightest young quantum-dot scientists to the company. In Quantum Dot’s optics lab, 30-year-old Stephen Empedocles is clearly in charge. This is the company’s showcase, where potential investors come to be awed. But Empedocles confidently stands by, inviting a visitor to take a look through the microscope at the single particles, not much larger than a few atoms, glowing brightly. It’s a glimpse of the nanoworld that’s sure to catch the fancy-and perhaps the checkbook-of an investor.

But the experimental apparatus criss-crossing the lab table like a maze betrays the fact that this is still cutting-edge science. Empedocles joined Quantum Dot immediately after graduating from MIT last spring with a doctorate in chemistry. Already a recognized expert in the development of analytical techniques to detect single quantum dots, Empedocles could have taken a job at a large research organization or had his pick of any number of academic positions. But he was drawn to the challenges and opportunities of taking the fundamental science of quantum dots and using the technology to make an impact on the real world.

“Even at MIT,” says Empedocles, “people couldn’t figure out why [he would join a risky, new company.] No one else I knew went to a startup.” The reason is that the entrepreneurial culture that has taken root in computer and biotech research remains embryonic in the physical sciences. Yet if Quantum Dot succeeds in its quest to marry nanotech and biotech, Empedocles may find that his colleagues at MIT gain a new understanding of his career leap.

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