What I Learned From Other Peoples Ideas

I seem to have spent most of this year reviewing funding proposals for a wide variety of institutions around the world. I do get the occasional flicker of annoyance from academics, but as someone who knows about the business side of technology a lot of governments find a more commercial perspective very useful.

The two striking aspects of this year’s batch are the sheer breadth of applications of nanotechnology, and the sheer brainlessness of some of the applicants.

There have been some odd proposals. Some are very cagey about what they are proposing and others are very vague, in both cases it’s hard to glean enough information to make a decision about whether or not to go ahead and they usually end up on the reject pile. Others are simply so badly written that I’m at a loss to understand what on earth they are proposing to do and why anyone should fund them. The same can be true when proposals are written in a style better suited for very specialised journals, but are impenetrable to anyone outside that specific scientific niche.

The weakest part of most grant applications comes when academics attempt to answer the questions about commercialisation. Depending on the exact funding competition I would rather see “impossible to predict at this stage” rather than some pseudo business jargon coupled with some shaky numbers.

“A search on the Internet indicated that the total market will be ten billion by 2015 and given an unsubstantiated but plausible sounding 10% market share this will result in revenues of a billion…”

I have to admit to being fairly tolerant of these kinds of mistakes by academics. I used to be one myself, sort of, and was probably guilty of making similarly naïve assumptions about how technology gets to market (or in many cases doesn’t).

My biggest worry is that government and EU funding becomes a kind of addiction for some companies. The same names seem to crop up on a regular basis, giving the impression that some of these companies are more project managers than technology companies.  I once visited a European company that had spent ten years developing technology that nobody wanted to buy, employed almost 100 people and subsisted entirely on public money.

But the most positive aspect of this experience is that nanotechnologies seem to be following the IT path to ubiquity. Thirst years ago few people could imagine applications outside number crunching and large corporate databases for microprocessors, and now they are everywhere – not just in computers but phones, automobiles, toys and washing machines. Nanotechnologies seem to be on a similar track, although not as widespread I have seen projects for medical devices, medical implants, drug delivery, energy harvesting (solar, biomechanical and electromagnetic), novel transistors, display components, building materials, paints, and sensors for everything from carbon monoxide to X-rays.

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