Jack Mason, Executive Producer, IBM Strategic Communications
In the six years that I've covered the NanoBusiness Alliance Conference (which just wrapped up in NYC April 17) there's always been a tension around nanotechnology between hype and hope, between market realities and the tantalizing promise of the next "industrial revolution." Even between science fiction and the cold calculus of business.
What dawned on me at this year's summit was that the dynamic undercurrent I've sensed is part of the process of how invention becomes innovation. As someone at the conference suggested, over the preceding six years, nanotechnology has been working its way through the Gartner Group's well known Hype Cycle.
The inflated expectations that characterized the commercialization of nanotech in the 2001-2004 period was punctured by the withdrawal of the Nanosys IPO in August, 2004. That lead to the trough of disillusionment - at least in terms of investor sentiment and media attention - over the last two years, as other big trends like Web 2.0 and social networking stole the spotlight.
As Charlie Harris, the CEO of Harris & Harris, one of the leading VC firms investing in nanotechnology, noted at the conference, nanotech is effectively following the same pattern that biotech did in the 1980s, when genetic engineering was expected to change the world and generate huge fortunes almost overnight, rather than over the course of decades, the pattern of success and innovation that it did follow.
The general public may not be able to see nanotech's inexorable advance, but by many accounts progress to solve the technical challenges of nanotechnology is being made, though in many cases the work is taking two, three or more years longer than expected. Not surprisingly, investors have become impatient and skeptical as a result.
Charlie Harris, Nanotech VC pioneer
Harris noted that Wall Street interest in an emerging front such as nanotechnology will invariably fluctuate since it is driven more by "fear, greed and other basic human responses" than by cool rationality and deep understanding of molecular-scale engineering (my personal definition of nanotechnology)
This yearâs NanoBusiness event did reflect how nanotechnology is adapting to meet two big market and societal challenges: healthcare and green or clean technologies. Those also happen to be two keen professional interests of mine, as well as strategic fronts for IBM.
Since one of the areas we hope Greater IBM will help drive is healthcare, I'll cover some of the highlights related to nanotech and the healthcare, biotech and medical fronts. You can see a roundup of nanotech developments connected to "Big Green" innovation at another IBM powered blog The Greater IBM Connection.
Applications for nanoscale devices, materials and systems are quite literally a natural fit for all things biological, because the nanoscale is similar to the size of DNA, proteins and other biomolecules. In fact, at the nanoscale, cells and other components of life are actually large.
For example, one company, Nanosphere, is getting close to commercializing a number of very sensitive genetic tests that could give very early warning of a patient's potential for developing Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases.
The tests would use nanoparticles of gold to detect this tiniest of traces of the proteins associated with these devastating illnesses.
One of the earliest use for these molecular diagnostic nanotools under review by the FDA would be for a kind of personalized medicine. The test could help doctors determine the proper dosage of the widely used anticoagulant known as warfarin, also known as Coumadin, appropriate for a particular patient about to have heart surgery such as bypass.
Today such dosage adjustment can take days or weeks. In emergency situations, the Nanosphere test could give results in minutes or hours.
The approach could also provide results immediately after prostrate surgery to definitively know if a patient is free of the disease, or likely to reoccur in 2-3 years.
Measuring Every Breath You Take
Nanomix is also in the diagnostic field, though it uses networks of carbon nanotubes to gauge levels of carbon dioxide in a patient's breath, a measure of lung function. A portable device for tracking a patient's oxygen level could be invaluable in emergency transport to a hospital and help prevent brain damage.
A similar device based on nanotube detectors could help people with asthma by continually monitoring their levels of nitrous oxide, an indicator of lung function. Better, round-the-clock monitoring could help patient improve their conditions by sticking to their medication regime, and prevent hospitalizations.
Building DNA on Demand
Combimatrix is a public company developing small devices that use a combination of advanced microfluidic technologies and nanotech materials to effectively build particular strands of DNA molecule by molecule.
The array of nanoreactors could help provide very fast and portable means for testing for the presence of a biowarfare agent or a virulent strain of bird flu. And the system offers the ability to test for as many as 50 genetic disease markers in babies in, or out, of the womb.
With respect to cancer detection, the system could help differentiate, for example, which strain or subtype of a particular leukemia someone might have. That deeper insight could help doctors determine which type of treatment would work best for a particular patient, i.e. whether aggressive chemotherapy is needed, or would work.
Arryx, now a unit of a larger medical device company called Haemonetics, uses tiny beams of lasers and holograms to manipulate individual cells. It can also sort, move and otherwise control specific targets such as stem cells, without harming them. Such "fingers of light" also hold promise for measuring how key biomolecules such as antibodies and antigens interact or bind.
Lastly, Luna Innovations has developed a unique, spherical molecule of 80 carbon atoms that it calls a trimetasphere (below). With in this hollow ball of carbon, Luna can trap a few ions of metallic atoms. In bulk, the engineered carbon cages could serve as a better contrast agent for MRIs, one that could both safely stay in the body longer and even be tailored to target certain types of diseased cells, such as cancer cells in the brain.
As you can imagine, this is just a sample of how nanotechnology is primed to become a central driver in the advancement of medical treatment and diagnosis, as well as the evolution toward molecular-based, and highly personalized, medicine.
And while nanotechnology may seem like an exotic and speculative field, it is in fact the natural extension of many sciences getting to finer control and greater ability to directly manipulate matter. In fact, in the decades ahead nanotechnology may actually wither away as a common term, since almost all science, engineering and related areas of technological, including all things biological, innovate at the scale of atoms and molecules.
My greatest hope, as an IBMer and a veteran reporter on nanotechnology, is that Big Blue is able to marshall its diverse areas of tech and business expertise to help the realm of molecular engineering accelerate. That would really count in my book as fulfilling IBM's core value of generating "Innovation that Matters, for our company and the world."