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U.S. Faces Nanotechnology R&D 'Dogfight'

Europe, Asia are matching U.S. funds

September 23, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- Countries in Europe and Asia are keeping pace with U.S. spending on basic research in nanotechnology, according to experts in that area. Consequently, U.S. investment in the technology, which manipulates matter atom by atom and is expected to spur a computing revolution, is only about 25% of the world's total.

"It's a dogfight—the rest of the world simply is not going to allow us to outspend them," said Stanley Williams, a fellow and director of quantum science research at Hewlett-Packard Co., in an interview last week. "We are going to have to be qualitatively better because we are not going to be quantitatively larger."

As foreign spending increases, nanotechnology companies in the U.S. are struggling to find funding.

For instance, Charles Janac, president and CEO of Nanomix Inc., made presentations to 41 venture capital firms and attended an exhausting 145 meetings over nine months before receiving $9 million in funding earlier this month for his nanotechnology electronic component and sensor product company in Emeryville, Calif.

He's lucky. Many other firms probably won't get funding. "I fear for them," said Janac.

The government could stimulate nanotechnology development by spending more on research to fuel product development, said researchers and private nanotechnology experts.

The race among nations to be leaders in this technology prompted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to introduce a bill last week to create national nanotechnology research centers and coordinate federal spending. Wyden is chairman of the Senate's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee.

Separately, the Bush administration is seeking $679 million for basic nanotechnology research for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1—a 17% increase over this year.

Business investment in nanotechnology start-ups is also on the rise. Investment in these companies stood at $100 million in 1999 and is projected to reach $1 billion by next year, according to Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the New York-based NanoBusiness Alliance, who testified last week at a Senate hearing on nanotechnology.

But despite these potential gains in funding, experts say more research and development funds are needed, along with reforms in how universities use research funds.

Williams said major companies have helped fund nanotechnology research at universities only to find researchers using their findings to form start-up firms.

"Large companies have been burned many, many times by giving money for research to universities," he said.

Nano Revolution

is expected to ultimately make it possible to build computers in which molecules serve as diodes, wires and transistors—all linked chemically. From these CPUs, tiny computing devices would emerge that use very little power and yet are millions or billions of times more powerful than today’s Pentium chips.


Just this month, HP said it has created the highest-density electronically addressable memory on record: a 64-bit memory using molecular switches that are less than one square micron in size, a bit density 10 times greater than a silicon chip.

In June, IBM said it had produced a nano-scale storage system capable of a data storage density of 1 trillion bits per square inch — 20 times higher than the densest magnetic storage available today.

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