Koelemay's Kosmos

Doug Koelemay


 

 

Broad Horizons in Nano Tech

 

Could Virginia be where the metal rubber meets the polymer road?


 

The latest economic news has been very good from the Commonwealth’s technology center in Northern Virginia. After shrinking more slowly than other sectors from 2001 to 2003, tech employment growth again is driving job creation up (2 out of every 3 new jobs in Virginia are being created in Northern Virginia) and unemployment down (to 2 percent in Northern Virginia). Economist Christine Chmura sees technology-related wages and salaries in Northern Virginia rising over nine percent in 2004 and another nine percent in 2005 to total about $5.5 billion.

 

The technology-driven future for Virginia, then, appears to be bright. And since the future is where we are going to spend most of our time from now on, that is a good thing. But what about sectors other than software and information technology that anchor Northern Virginia’s tech economy? What about other regions? Will a new age dawn, as Don Henley sings, on fewer than expected? And what is the public sector’s role in all this?

 

First, remember some of the differences between the old economy and the so-called new economy, now that the new economy is back. In the old economy, Virginia’s economic development strategy was to attract companies from other states by selling itself as a cheap place to do business. Low taxes, low wages and geography were advantages for manufacturing and transportation. Investing in a high-quality environment -- education, health care, water resources, etc. -- was optional, because doing so might require taxes or regulations on businesses that more than anything were cost-conscious.

 

In the new economy, however, flexibility, adaptability and a willingness to embrace change began to define successful regions. Service companies and jobs exploded in places rich in ideas and talent and companies moved into regions with amenities and large pools of educated people. Information and communications became drivers. Return on investment, not the costs of inputs, drove new investments. Governments, businesses, universities and non-profits partnered in those regions to build new, diverse communities.

 

As Joel Kotkin of Pepperdine University has observed in new economy studies for the Milken Institute, “Wherever intelligence clusters, in small town or big city, in any geographic location, that is where wealth will accumulate.”

 

Two summer events in Virginia indicate that broad partnerships are evolving quickly in the Commonwealth in two areas of technology – nanotechnology and biotechnology – where potential alternately is oversold and undersold. As fast-emerging fields feeding off research and commercial breakthroughs that occur almost daily, nano and bio would not have been prime candidates for success in the old economy. Low wages and physical geography aren’t prime factors. Smart people and trained workers are.

 

Further, there was inertia in Virginia, a preference to see what future would show up, rather than an energy to build it. Ideas and innovations regularly slipped into the water, of course, but too many were launched, in current electoral parlance, as swift boats sent up river more than anything else to draw fire. Now there have emerged in Virginia new partners ready to seek strategic purpose, set direction, divvy up roles and resources and draw Virginia’s horizons, not just observe them. This is another good thing.

 

The Virginia General Assembly led the way on nanotechnology by approving a study (introduced by Delegate Joe May, R-Leesburg) this summer by its Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS) of the “nanotechnology research and related economic development opportunities for the Commonwealth.” JCOTS formed a citizens advisory panel of scientists, attorneys and business executives to do just that and at its inaugural meeting August 4th took its first look at why the ability to engineer systems with components on length scales of 1-100 nanometers could be big business.

 

“Properties and structures of materials are different at such reduced scales,” Robert Hull, Director of the University of Virginia’s NanoQuest Institute told panelists, “and if we can make things smaller, they are cheaper, lighter, use less power to operate and we can have a lot more of them.”

 

For cars and airplanes, that could mean lighter, stronger bodies, self-repairing parts and collision avoidance systems. For health care, that could mean nanostructured drugs and delivery systems, self diagnostics and bone/tissue regeneration. For manufacturing, that could mean self-assembling materials, super-hard cutting tools and nanoscrubbed processes.

 

The confluence of critical capabilities, including computational, fabrication, synthesis and measurement methods, is driving nanoscience, Hull said, as is an improved understanding of nanoscale biological processes. With support from the Offices of the Secretaries of Technology and Commerce & Trade, the Center for Innovative Technology and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, JCOTS is to report back before the General Assembly convenes again in January 2005.

 

At stake is Virginia’s share of an estimated $1 trillion market by 2015 and a share of the almost one million jobs related to nanotech in the U.S. that may be created by then. In the shorter term, thanks in part to leadership from Virginia’s United States Senator George Allen, there is a share of $3.7 billion the federal government has authorized over four years for nanotechnology research initiatives.

 

With very similar intent on July 23rd, Governor Mark R. Warner signed Executive Order 76 to form the Governor’s Commission on Biotechnology. The commission is to build an implementation plan drawing from the 2003 report of the Governor’s Advisory Board for the Virginia Biotechnology Initiative, in the words of the executive order, “to ensure that Virginia will become a recognized center for biotechnology comparable to the reputation the Commonwealth now enjoys in other technology sectors.”

 

Among the commission’s areas of investigation are how to leverage universities, laboratories, incubators, research parks and private investment; assess job creation and new investment potential of workforce, location and other factors; satisfy future workforce and training needs; evaluate Virginia’s competitive position; enhance the Commonwealth’s research base; and encourage growth of biotech companies and future investments of life science companies. With the Secretary of Commerce & Trade and the Chairman of the Virginia Biotechnology Association serving as co-chairmen and the Secretary of Technology as vice chairman, the 30-member commission may form a smaller executive steering committee to more quickly develop details and options before reporting in July 2005.

 

Michael Darby and Lynne Zucker, two UCLA scholars who spent the last decade studying the rise of new technology industries, released a working set of conclusions earlier this year that could offer some guidance. Because nano, like bio, is a science-based technology sector, they discovered that the number of top scientists at nearby universities and the existence of a large pool of highly skilled workers are the two strongest factors in attracting nanotechnology firms to a particularly region. That discovery sets off a strategic alarm in a Commonwealth whose population, commercial, job and university research centers are not congruent. Another group, the Virginia Research and Technology Advisory Commission, is tackling that question.

 

Now what about metal rubber? NanoSonic of Blacksburg recently announced it was making a new material that conducts electricity like metal, but stretches like rubber up to several hundred percent of its original length. Artificial muscles? Airplane wings that change shape on electrical command? Lockheed Martin Corp. was interested enough to sign an agreement in July. And NanoSonic, created in 1998 in cooperation with Virginia Tech and the Center for Innovative Technology, says it has plenty of other breakthroughs on the horizon.

 

-- August 9, 2004

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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J. Douglas Koelemay

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