Nanotech Takes It On The Chin
Here is a link to an Op-Ed piece that Crain’s Chicago Business ran today about the unfortunate state of funding for emerging nanotechnology companies. I’d welcome your thoughts and comments…either here or on the Crain’s site.
I have two problems with the nanotech story. #1 is an example: I once tried to work with NanoInk specifically, and for my application there was nothing that they could do that I could not achieve with a more mature toolset in about the same number of steps, at about the same cost. This is a real problem – $150M seems like a lot of money to burn through but it is nothing compared with the investment that’s been made in optical or e-beam lithography. It’s not enough to say that in the long term you will be better than others – you have to be able to beat them in the short term as well.
#2 is that NanoInk is not alone with this problem. It take on average, 18 years for a materials science innovation to be successfully commercialized. This means that VCs should stay the heck away from nanotech inventions coming out of academia. This fact pains me because I am a nanotech inventor, but the truth is that materials science is really hard, lots of competitors exist for almost every idea, and the only way to scale these innovations is to lurk in a small, dark, and unloved corner of the market for a long time while you improve your product and lower your costs. That is a fine play for a small company, and provides ROI to a faculty inventor who really doesn’t have any other place to invest his intellectual capital. But it provides crummy ROI to an investor, whose capital is a lot more fungible.
When I was in grad school in the 90s I read a book about materials science innovation that made the point that, at the time of publication (I think ’93), Kevlar had still not made a net profit for DuPont, almost 30 years after its invention. It’s not that there is something fundamentally wrong with nanotech. It’s just that there is nothing about nanotech that is different from Kevlar.
Here is another provocative article about NanoInk’s demise. http://spectrum.ieee.org/nanoclast/semiconductors/nanotechnology/why-did-nanoink-go-bust
The comments to that ieee article are priceless.
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