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California: Where Emerging Technologies Converge

Susan Avery (Apr/May 07)
The Golden State continues to expand upon its longstanding reputation for innovation. This year, the spotlight shines on nanotechnology, biotechnology, and "clean" technology - the three sectors singled out by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Strategic Research and Innovation Initiative, which allocates funds to several major projects in these rapidly evolving technology fields.

Anticipation of this special state funding was a key factor in British Petroleum's (BP) selection of the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) as the location for the Energy Biosciences Institute, a long-term research project to develop alternative fuels. The governor's initiative budgeted $40 million in lease revenue bonds, and BP in turn awarded a $500 million grant for the project. Also at LBNL is the Helios Project, focusing primarily on solar energy, for which the governor allocated $30 million in lease revenue bonds to go toward construction of a new energy/nanotechnology research building.

The Helios Project and the Energy Biosciences Institute are both good examples of California's commitment to technology industries, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg. The state's proposed 2007-08 budget also includes more than $250 million to support research throughout the University of California system, plus about $20 million toward operating costs of the four California Institutes for Science and Innovation.

These institutes, which conduct primary research in information technology, biomedical research, and nanotechnology, have generated more than $1 billion in projects from private and federal sources since their inception in 2000 (after an initial state investment of $400 million). The California Nanosystems Institute, for example, with its lead campus at UCLA and also facilities at UCSB (Santa Barbara), has attracted investments from a very wide range of industries, working on projects as diverse as nanomaterials for manufacturing or energy production, nanoscale medical diagnostic and delivery systems, and computer memory devices built out of interlocking molecules.

Meanwhile, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and Stanford University in the Bay Area are considered among the top nanotechnology research institutions in the country, and intense nanotechnology research is also taking place at the national laboratories in the state. LBNL is home to the Molecular Foundry, one of five Nanoscale Research Centers overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Livermore campus of Sandia National Laboratory each have several specialized nano labs; and the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley has a large nanotechnology program, frequently working in cooperation with universities and industries.

Nanotechnology in particular is considered a "disruptive" technology - expected to have an increasingly large impact on every major industry worldwide in the years to come. Because it overlaps industries, nanotech is not so much an industry in itself as it is a technical specialization. Nanotech 2007, the 10th annual conference of the Nano Science & Technology Institute, is expected to draw more than 4,000 attendees in late May to Santa Clara in Silicon Valley, with scheduled industry presentations to include sessions on such industries as semiconductors, telecommunications, health sciences, polymers, transportation, energy, and food.

"Everybody sees that nanotechnology is the wave of the future," says Dina Lozofsky, director of technology commercialization at the California Nanosystems Institute. "It's something that will impact industries across the board - healthcare, energy, environment. It crosses lines, bringing together experts from all fields." She cites two good examples of how a technology can move from the lab to the market: Santa Monica-based NanoH2O LLC, which is set to begin field tests soon on water filtration membranes containing nanoparticles; and Los Angeles-based Unidym, which is marketing carbon nanotube technology for use in a range of electronic applications including solar cells, touch screens, and "smart" windows. Both of these recent startups came about as a result of research at UCLA.

Nano-related patents continue to multiply, already playing a crucial role in advances in biotechnology and "clean" technology, the other two sectors boosted by Governor Schwarzenegger's initiative. Nanotubes, nanospheres, nanowires, and many other kinds of nanodevices and nanomaterials are making the transition from research and development to commercialization in both biotech- and cleantech-related industries.

As is the case with any high-tech venture, all of these specializations are extremely complex and require high levels of engineering expertise as well as knowledgeable investors. Fortunately, California offers both in ample supply. According to the 2007 State New Economy Index published by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, California is the top state for the number of inventor patents issued per capita. It also ranks among the leading states for percentage of jobs in high-tech industries, scientists and engineers in the work force, entrepreneurs starting new businesses, industry research and development, venture capital investments, and initial public stock offerings.

Geographically, high-tech clusters in California are concentrated primarily around the Bay Area (including Silicon Valley) and along the southern coast (Los Angeles and San Diego), linked closely with the state's evolving information technology sector.


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