Given the global gloom emanating from all sources, it was at least nice to see that our little bit of the world, nanotechnologies, got a mention in Davos and Andrew Maynard who is also on the nanotechnologies council with me has the background details here.
However, I’m still a bit worried that most discussions about nanotechnology tend to focus on what might be possible, or enabled, which is always much more interesting to waffle on about than the nitty gritty business of how to actually do it. Let’s have a quick recap of the situation.
- The Venture Capital industry is in disarray – returns are close to zero, limited partners are bailing out and Web 2.0 will always be more interesting than hard stuff like nanotech
- Most University tech transfer offices think they are Stanford University or MIT circa 1998 and haven’t cottoned on to the fact that academic research is not some kind of sausage machine where brains go in at one end and money comes out at the other simply by pressing the right buttons
- Many applications of nanotechnologies can take ten years to get to market and could require anything from ten million to a billion dollars to get them there
So, given the current climate, no matter how good your idea/technology/business plan is, the chances are you are going to get screwed by investors, banks and your own university before you can even contemplate running it as a business. Of course for that 1 in 100,00 there is always the chance that a Dow/BASF/Mitsubishi might step in, but you could also buy some lottery tickets and perhaps save the hassle. That’s not much of an incentive for anyone is it?
At the same time, we have the world crying out for solutions that only materials (and let’s face it, nanotech is all about the control of materials) can provide. It’s been that way since the invention of fire, and every technological leap forward has been associated with the material that made the economic boom possible, bronze, iron, coal/steel and silicon.
It was good to see my concerns being slightly addressed at Davos with the statement that “Most funding goes to developing materials, but developing manufacturing capability with a high degree of reproducibility is a huge challenge that needs proper funding” but the problem goes much deeper than that. Despite the the current recession there us no shortage of academic innovation, or entrepreneurial creativity, and despite what the doomsayers in the media will have us believe, we’re not all living in caves eating mud pies and consumers and businesses still have cash to spend or invest.
Given that the returns on most asset classes are now negative, entrepreneurs are one of the few places where some wisely invested cash will give a decent return. Imagine what would have happened if governments had refused to bail out the banks and put the cash into technology, entrepreneurs and small businesses instead? We’d still be a few hundred billion in the hole, but at least there would be some chance of getting some of it back and stimulating the overdue reinvention of the economy.
The next few years will be tough, but as a species we’ve had worse, and our innate creativity coupled with technology will see us through. I’m reminded of one of my favourite misquotations from the eminent philosopher and Yangtze river swimming champion Mao Zedong:
“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”
Perhaps we don’t need to worry about the socialism bit too much, but a trillion dollars should allow a few million flowers to bloom. Instead of pouring cash into fixing yesterdays mistakes, we should be investing for tomorrow.