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Intelligent Machines

Can Small Be Big Again?

Serial entrepreneur Larry Bock has confidence in nanotech.

When serial entrepreneur Larry Bock’s Palo Alto startup, Nanosys, pulled its IPO a year ago this month, it helped to deflate financial interest in nanotech. But Bock, Nanosys’s chairman, says his confidence in nanotech’s future has not diminished.

Skeptics call nanotech a great collection of small markets with no killer app. That’s probably true in the short term, but even three years out, some of the things we’ll see will be monumentally world changing.

Is the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) helping things along?
One of the industry’s ongoing problems is the gap between basic and applied research. People call it “the valley of death” – too big or long-range for the VCs to handle, too applied for academics. NNI should be a helpful bridge.

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Environmentalists have nanotechnology on their watch list. Are you worried about a repeat of what happened with genetic engineering?
It has people in the industry concerned, sure. The big difference is that unlike genetic engineering, nanotechnology is a thousand different things. There’s an obvious distinction between using metric tons of carbon nanotubes to fill tires versus someone making a single nanowire sensor. That’s why you need to open a dialogue with critics and start doing an individual risk-benefit analysis for every application.

More evidence that the blanket term “nanotech” is pretty useless?
There’d be a lot less hype and confusion if everyone used the NNI definition – exploiting novel properties and functions of materials in the sub-100-nanometer size range. I don’t think golf balls loaded with nanomaterials should necessarily be labeled nanotechnology.

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