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'Nano startups can take cues from IT'

Last updated on: July 04, 2005 13:18 IST

Tim Harper, chief executive officer and founder of nano technology company Cientifica, was hailed by Time magazine as 'The Face of European Nanotechnology.'

Harper is co-author of The Nanotechnology Opportunity Report, described by the US National Aeronautical Space Administration as 'the defining report in the field of nanotechnology.'

'Nanotechnology has been defined as the application of science, engineering and technology to novel materials and devices, including biological and medical applications, to produce products on a minute scale.'

The genesis of nanotechnology is believed to have been a speech by American physicist Richard Feynman, who suggested developing the ability to manipulate atoms and molecules directly by coming up with a set of one-tenth scale machine tools.

These small tools would then help to develop and operate one-hundredth scale machine tools and so on. In India, 10 universities are engaged in nanotechnology research.

Harper, a one-time engineer at the European Space Agency's research and development centre at Noordwijk in the Netherlands, set up the London- headquartered Cientifica in 1997 initially to meet the advanced needs of the European Space Agency's astrophysics research division.

The company publishes reports on nanotechnology developments, organises events and is associated with public nanotechnology projects. Harper was in Mumbai recently to partner with the Mumbai-based Yash Infotech.

He spoke to Business Standard on the myths about nanotechnology and the business itself. Excerpts:

Where does nanotechnology stand today?

Despite Richard Feynman making the most famous statement about there being enough room at the bottom, we could not see anything till the 1980s. We should have called it nano science then because it was really about knowing what it is all about.

Today, after 46 years, I can say that we know enough science to apply the technology.

Does nanotechnology suffer from an image perception?

It does, in a number of ways. In the 1980s, popular science fiction books described nanotechnology as leading to some kind of nano robots that could enter your body and cure diseases like cancer.

Around 2000, the US set up a National Nano Initiative and this coincided with the dot-com bust. Venture capitalists rushed into the field, imagining it would be the next big thing after the dot-com boom. But it doesn't work this way.

Any technology is backed by years of research -- look at the evolution of the transistor or even the computer. One good outcome of the venture capitalists' encouragement is that an average of $2-$4 billion is now being invested in universities worldwide engaged in nano research.

What are the biggest challenges for nanotechnology?

The perception problem. Because people cannot understand nano, this technology is a little removed from the public domain.

Companies and governments need to come together and make people aware of this technology. Nano cannot cure cancer or send people to Mars, but it can help purify water and keep your food fresh for a longer period of time.

Where is nanotechnology headed now?

Within the next 10 years, we will be seeing nano science in universities to a much greater degree than ever before. But most importantly, we will be seeing its applications in water treatment, drug delivery, the preservation of food and in the power industry.

In which areas can the use of nanotechnology prove beneficial?

The major areas of application right now are medical and pharmaceuticals, information technology, chemicals and advanced materials. However, if we look at this from an Indian perspective, textiles are far more significant.

So the major applications would be in chemicals (better catalysts to improve throughput, the use of nano particles in composite materials) and textiles (to make cloth stain and crease resistant).

Nanotechnology will also affect packaging. For an agriculturally rich nation like India, getting fresh food to outside markets in peak condition will be very a much a function of how it is packaged -- whether we are talking about 'smart' packaging, for example, the use of gas permeable layers that can expel undesirable gases such as oxygen while replacing it with nitrogen, or simply being able to detect a consignment of milk that has been left out on the sun en route to the supermarket.

Does nanotechnology offer an entrepreneur opportunities?

The nano market is estimated to be worth $3 trillion. One can be tempted to conclude that there is enough opportunity for everyone to do something nano and expect big returns. But we need to look beyond those numbers and identify the economics of our set up.

From a business point of view, we want to make better things that are cost effective but, at the same time, profitable. Nanotechnology when applied in the correct form can result in bigger gains but has the potential to backfire as well.

Nanotechnology has resulted in the discovery of new materials which can be used in a range of industries, from manufacturing to healthcare.

So an entrepreneur who wants to invest in nanotechnology must identify what properties of the new material he can exploit. One mistake that many start ups in nanotechnology make is that they invest again in the research of the technology.

A smart businessman will look at the available technology and tweak it to his benefit. Nano start ups can take cues from the world of information technology. It took companies like IBM to set up the basic framework of computers, servers and networks while companies like Fed Ex, United Parcel Service (UPS) and Amazon used it to their benefit.

Why have you tied up with Yash Infotech in India?

Nano's major applications lie in the manufacturing sector, which is India's strength. Several companies in India deal with plastics and textiles and nano applications have immense potential in areas like polymers, conducting polymers and fibres.

Indian universities have good nano infrastructure. If you combine this with the human resources, there is no reason research that can be easily carried out in Mumbai needs to be undertaken at all in Manhattan.

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Aparna Krishnakumar
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