Aug 2, 2002
How to get rich through nanotechnology
Roger Carline, MEMS business development manager at QinetiQ, reviews new book "The Investor's Guide to Nanotechnology and Micromachines" by Glenn Fishbine (2002 John Wiley 288pp £37.50/$49.95hb).
Glenn Fishbine obviously knows his microtechnology. In this book, he attempts to peel away the layers of technobabble, acronyms and hype to show the investor how to gain commercial advantage in the field and to reveal the truth behind the technology promises made by "the experts". Most of the discussion will, however, provide potential investors with reason to hesitate before embarking on ventures in this emerging technology area.
The author has not attempted to cover the full breadth represented by the catch-all title of nanotechnology and micromachines, which enables him to provide an easily accessible book full of interesting anecdotes and invaluable advice. He focuses mainly on US opportunities in high-profile applications of relatively sophisticated micromachines and related nanotechnologies. Indeed, his review-style approach is biased towards the areas of technology outlined by the US government's nanotechnology initiative and particularly the work carried out by Sandia National Laboratories.
This American bias might rankle a little for the non-US reader, especially given the author's comments that the opportunities outside the US are at least as significant as those within. Having said that, a significant proportion of the investment in nanotechnology - and associated technological strategy - has been made in the US over the past few decades.
The book is divided into two equal parts. The first, entitled "The investment landscape", discusses the sources from which investors might mine technology investment opportunities. The second, entitled "Searching for gold", provides a structured review of the technology - analysing its "time to market" and describing those activities of a company in which applications in the field are most likely to be developed.
In discussing the investment possibilities, the author assumes that the reader will need to extract value from the innovative technology by securing a good deal from any intellectual-property rights that emerge from government- or university-funded research. The book goes on to describe the structure of US technology research from which such intellectual property arises. It also looks at how the investor might find suitable research projects and highlights those organizations that can help in securing ownership of such rights.
But despite the inclusion of a chapter entitled "International activity", most of the book is unashamedly US focused to the point where chapter 3 is entitled "The Feds". As a result, much of the detail is of limited value in seeking opportunities outside the US. Nevertheless, the generic discussion of the technology drivers, risks, pitfalls and strategies for finding and building high-tech microengineering businesses is universally valid.
Much of the book's real value is in highlighting the difference in philosophy behind those who fund and develop the technology and those who want to make money from it - particularly where investors might be tempted simply to follow government investment decisions. Although much of this is undoubtedly good advice, readers will have caveat emptor etched on their eyeballs and may be left wondering why they should want to read the second part of the book.
The book contains little information about actual companies, with those that are highlighted generally having "nano" in their titles even though their products may be decades away. This gives a slightly pessimistic view, by under-representing examples of existing products classed as micromachines and ignoring the many companies both inside and outside the US that are good investment opportunities.
Nevertheless, for anyone with an interest in the technology of the future, it is worth scanning through the second section of the book. Science-fiction fans might even find it fascinating. It provides a structured review of the technologies that will be required for autonomous micromachines to pervade every aspect of our lives. The reader is left in no doubt that most of the predicted applications will happen, although not necessarily in the near future nor with current technologies. Possibilities range from satellites supported by nanotube "lifts" to micromachines that could seek and destroy cancers.
Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the technology, the author attempts to give a realistic assessment of opportunities, particularly the time lines for real products. The text is written at a level that will enable even non-scientists to glean the basic technological principles. And because so many different topics are covered, those readers who are technologically literate will find many useful facts for discussion over dinner.
All in all, the author has done a good and entertaining job of breaking down, ordering and assessing a fair chunk of the technologies currently being developed, and providing a valuable insight into their commercial potential. If anything, this is the main strength of the book as it provides potential investors with a starting point for understanding and locating opportunities. They will, of course, still need to employ a sceptical expert before embarking on a project, but the book will at least pre-arm them against the initial euphoria of any technologist's enthusiasm.
This article originally appeared in Physics World magazine.
About the author
Roger Carline is the MEMS business development manager at QinetiQ's Malvern Technology Centre, Malvern, UK, email firstname.lastname@example.org.