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California: Where Emerging Technologies Converge

Susan Avery (Apr/May 07)
(page 3 of 3)
Public-private partnerships and interdisciplinary collaboration accelerate a technology's transition from pure research to practical use or commercialization. At Caltech (also home to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies (ICB), formed four years ago through a unique alliance of industry, academia, and the U.S. Army. Interdisciplinary teams of molecular biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers from Caltech, UCSB, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing biomolecular sensors, photovoltaic nanoparticles, bacteriophages - which automatically assemble semiconductor nanocrystals that can be spun into fibers and woven into fabrics - and many other futuristic technologies for applications limited only by the imagination. Although the work is meant to advance the Army's capabilities, the research is unclassified and ICB encourages industry involvement. Palo Alto-based biotech firm Genencor International and more than a dozen other companies specializing in nano or biotech are listed as ICB industrial partners.

The University of California at Berkeley houses the National Science Foundation's Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems, where multidisciplinary teams are focusing on development of nanotechnology-based detection systems that combine nanoscale sensing, power, electronics, wireless communication, and mobility into a single platform. Industrial partners include IBM, HP, Intel, Honeywell, ChevronTexaco, General Electric, and Nanomix.

NanoBioNexus, a nonprofit organization founded two years ago in San Diego to promote nanotech and biotech research and commercialization, is building a worldwide network of experts in these fields from both industry and academia, working to connect them with actual projects. Already, the group has seen success, getting a molecular diagnostics project going at Oxford Nanolabs in England and leading the team that last year won a five-year National Cancer Institute grant to establish the NanoTumor Center at University of California San Diego, which is now researching development and commercialization of nanotechnology to diagnose, treat, and monitor cancer.

"In nanotechnology, there is an incredible amount of research going on in laboratories, but commercialization is a long-term, arduous process," says NanoBioNexus member and spokesperson Sandra Kay Helsel, Ph.D., who notes that it can take years for a startup nanotech company to establish itself in the marketplace. Networking on an international scale is a key part of the process, she emphasizes - in contrast to the early days of computer technology developments, nanotech, she says, "can't be built in someone's garage." One trend that Helsel has observed is that many entrepreneurs and researchers involved in nanotech are shifting their efforts more toward cleantech developments. "Nanotech is so long-term, and cleantech funding is easier to come by right now,"

According to a report published last September by the Milken Institute analyzing the commercialization of university-based biotech research, California leads the nation in venture capital funding for biotech. Continued state investment virtually assures that it will keep that lead. California's tradition of innovation, its world-class universities and national laboratories, its ever-evolving and expanding network of high-tech industry clusters, and its technology-friendly government policies combine to offer a clear strategic advantage to technology companies of all types and sizes.   
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