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California: Where Emerging Technologies Converge

Susan Avery (Apr/May 07)
(page 2 of 3)
Cleantech On the Rise
Like nanotech, cleantech encompasses many industries - including any technology (especially high-tech) that addresses environmental issues, from pollution control to energy efficiency. Now that global warming and other "green" concerns have moved out of the fringes and into the mainstream of public opinion and policy, California is leading the way in cleantech development.

Governor Schwarzenegger has been particularly active in promoting this technology sector. In addition to including cleantech in his Strategic Research and Innovation Initiative, the governor's pioneering efforts to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil have also included the Hydrogen Highway, which is a network of hydrogen fueling stations intended to help speed development of - and public interest in - alternative-fuel vehicles. Other projects include the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, one of several incentive programs to encourage widespread deployment of solar power, and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), which mandates lower emissions for passenger vehicle fuels. Shortly after he established this new standard, the European Union announced a pollution standard for motor fuels almost identical to California's. The governor is also at the forefront of the push to create a national LCFS in the United States as a whole.

According to Schwarzenegger, "California's economy stands to greatly benefit from the wave of new businesses and jobs created by the emerging technologies and different approaches to fighting climate change." The state's emphasis on promoting cleantech has opened a wide array of opportunities for companies with the technical expertise to tackle the challenges of "going green," and interest in cleantech by venture capitalists continues to grow as a result. In February, a cleantech forum in San Francisco sponsored by New York-based investment firm Jefferies & Co. attracted about 1,000 attendees - double the attendance of the same event a year earlier. Entrepreneurs seeking capital funding presented a wide range of technologies to potential investors, including nanotech membranes for use in water desalination plants, bio-engineered crops for ethanol production, biodegradable plastics, energy-efficient lighting, and environment-friendly production of building materials. Venture capital firms are now including cleantech strategies in their business plans, and some are specializing in this sector, just as some are now specializing in nanotech and biotech.

Nanotech and biotech will play an increasingly larger role in cleantech developments. The Nanotech 2007 conference includes a subconference, Cleantech 2007, with a long list of topics and application areas in which nano, bio, and cleantech overlap. Creation of biofuels, "smart" fertilizers, or bioremediation devices, for example, will involve all three sectors. The Energy Biosciences Institute, clearly a biotech/cleantech operation, will also incorporate nanotech into its research, with easy access to LBNL's Molecular Foundry as well as the new energy/nanotechnology facility in the works for the Helios Project.

Bio/Nano/Info Synergies

The governor's Strategic Research and Innovation Initiative also includes state matching funds to enhance California's bid for the ultra-fast Petascale computer, a National Science Foundation grant for which the University of California system is one of four finalists nationwide. If California is selected for the project, it will further enhance the state's already strong global leadership in the information technology sector.

Information technology in California is strongly linked to nano, bio, and cleantech. Many owners, managers, and engineering staff of technology startup companies have computer-industry backgrounds, and many IT-related companies are investing heavily in these emerging technologies, especially nanotech, which promises the ultimate in miniaturization.

In Silicon Valley, nano research has continued to progress at Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and other computer industry giants, in some cases spawning new companies. Santa Clara-based Agilent Technologies, an HP spinoff that went public in 1999 and is probably most famous for its optical mouse sensor, is now a world leader in nanotech instruments for measurement, imaging, and manipulation of nanomaterials and nanodevices. These types of devices are increasingly being used across a broad spectrum of industrial and medical applications. Software developers are also specializing. Atomistix A/S, based in Copenhagen with U.S. headquarters in Palo Alto, has commercialized software for the study of nanoscale systems and devices.

The synergy in California among technology industries, academic research institutions, and government is another strategic advantage for technology companies locating in the state. Bio, nano, and cleantech startups have arisen from university research programs as well as from work at the national laboratories, and technology companies, in return, provide strong financial support to California's academic institutions through grants and contracts. Federal government research grants and contracts, meanwhile, flow to both academia and industry. Emeryville-based Nanomix Inc., which produces ultra-sensitive carbon nanotube chemical detection devices, has received more than $1 million in National Science Foundation grants to continue development and commercialization of its proprietary technology, and earlier this year was awarded a $1 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to work on a special project in cooperation with the Naval Research Laboratories.


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