The Commercialization of Nanotechnology

Nanotech is often defined as the manipulation and control of matter at the nanometer scale (critical dimensions of 1 to 100nm). It is a bit unusual to describe a technology by a length scale. We certainly didn't get very excited by "inch-o technology." As venture capitalists, we start to get interested when there are unique properties of matter that emerge at the nanoscale and that cannot be exploited at the macroscale world of today's engineered products. We like to ask the start-ups that we are investing in, "Why now? Why couldn't you have started this business ten years ago?" The responses of our nanotech start-ups have a common thread: Recent developments in the capacity to understand and engineer nanoscale materials have enabled new products that could not have been developed at larger scale.

Various unique properties of matter are expressed at the nanoscale and are quite foreign to our "bulk statistical" senses (we do not see single photons or quanta of electric charge; we feel bulk phenomena, like friction, at the statistical or emergent macroscale). At the nanoscale, the bulk approximations of Newtonian physics are revealed for their inaccuracy and give way to quantum physics. Nanotechnology is more than a linear improvement with scale; everything changes. Quantum entanglement, tunneling, ballistic transport, frictionless rotation of superfluids, and several other phenomena have been regarded as "spooky" by many of the smartest scientists, even Einstein, upon first exposure.

For a simple example of nanotech's discontinuous divergence from the "bulk" sciences, consider the simple aluminum soda can. If you take the inert aluminum metal in that can and grind it down into a powder of 2030nm particles, it will spontaneously explode in air. It becomes a rocket fuel catalyst. In other words, the energetic properties of matter change at that scale. The surface-area-to-volume ratios become relevant, and even the distances between the atoms in a metal lattice change from surface effects.

Innovation from the Edge

Disruptive innovation, the driver of growth and renewal, occurs at the edge. In start-ups, innovation occurs out of the mainstream, away from the warmth of the herd. In biological evolution, innovative mutations take hold at the physical edge of the population, at the edge of survival. In complexity theory, structure and complexity emerge at the edge of chaosthe dividing line between predictable regularity and chaotic indeterminacy. And in science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs at the interdisciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines.

Herein lies much of the excitement about nanotechnology: in the richness of human communication about science. Nanotech exposes the core areas of overlap in the fundamental sciences, the place where quantum physics and quantum chemistry can cross-pollinate with ideas from the life sciences.

Over time, each of the academic disciplines develops its own proprietary systems vernacular that isolates it from neighboring disciplines. Nanoscale science requires scientists to cut across the scientific languages to unite the isolated islands of innovation. As illustrated in Figure 4-2, nanotech is the nexus of the sciences.

Figure 4-2. Nanotech is the nexus of the sciences.

Figure 4-2. Nanotech is the nexus of the sciences.

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