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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Nanotechnology and the Entrepreneurial Mind

Last evening, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel at a forum on nanotechnology held by the Minnesota Entrepreneurs Inc. In my short time before the group, which had just been bombarded with a series of short lectures on the technical and futuristic aspects of nanotechnology, I tried to convey the immense opportunity entrepreneurs can help play in bringing nanotechnology to the commercial marketplace.

It is conventional wisdom that the emerging field of nanotechnology is complex and the field will not suffer from the rash of start-ups that the Dot.com era witnessed. While this is true, I noted that there was no reason to be intimidated by the field—or write it off just because you don’t have a PhD in physics, biology or the material sciences. There will be no shortage of entrepreneurial opportunities for those who understand how nanotechnology-enabled advances in the materials sciences, data storage, energy devices and a myriad of other products might soon be utilized by the masses.

My point was that tomorrow’s most successful entrepreneurs will not just be those people who actually start nanotechnology companies (my guess is that this number will be relatively small and will be limited to those with a deep base of scientific knowledge and/or access to a deep reservoir of financial capital which will be necessary to bring their product(s) to market), it will also be open to those individuals who understand how nanotech-enabled advances can be used to improve people’s everyday lives and enhance business operations.

Let me provide a few examples. Nanotechnology is driving a revolution in material sciences. Nano-Tex’s stain-resistant pants are often held up as a model example for how nanotechnology can revive an industry—the textile industry—that was long given up as outdated and uncompetitive. The question the entrepreneur has to ask is this: Are there new business opportunities that could emerge from this revolution? For instance, if cloths are now lasting longer—and staying cleaner—are there additional business opportunities to rent clothing—or other products—coated with nanofibers? Similarly, as other nanotech companies manufacture lighter, stronger, and more dent and scratch resistant materials, what new opportunities could emerge? If self-cleaning or energy-enhanced windows become more prevalent, how can the engaging entrepreneur harness these properties to improve a company’s—and thus his or her own—bottom line.

The advances nanotechnology is enabling in data storage arena offer similar entrepreneurial opportunities. To illustrate my point, I offer the example of Reed Hastings, the founder of NetFlix. He didn’t invent DVD technology. He was simply among the first to recognize that eventually DVD technology would get so inexpensive that he reproduce and send out DVDs in the mail and allow customers to keep them for an indefinite period of time. In so doing, he successfully challenged the entire video rental industry.

Will similar opportunities emerge in the future? Yes, and it is going to be the entrepreneur—not necessarily the developer of the technology—who gets rich in the process.

Another area, I am personally excited about are the advances being made in flexible solar cell technology. Konarka is reportedly working with the U.S. Army to embed solar fabrics directly into the uniforms of our soldiers. The purpose is to help our fighting men and women reduce the number—and weight—of batteries they must carry. Solar fabric, by allowing them to essentially recharge their computers and other electronic equipment from their clothing, will do this. The technology will undoubtedly be beneficial for our soldiers, but is there also a successful business lurking in the technology? Yes. I don’t necessarily know what that business will be, but if people can recharge their cell phones, laptops, and IPods from their clothing, my guess is that the entrepreneurial mind can think of some exciting possibilities.

To do so, however, the entrepreneur must first understand where nanotechnology is pushing a variety of technologies. By doing so, they can get out ahead of the herd and capture these opportunities before they become obvious to everyone else.

Jack Uldrich