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Conference on small particles could create a big buzz
Sunday, April 17, 2005

Nanotechnology is a lot like a fresh-faced ingenue just-arrived in Hollywood: bursting with potential, creating a media buzz and waiting for that first big break.

Cheerleaders say that nanotechnology is no flash-in-the-pan. Rather, it could spark a potential industrial revolution that will radically alter the way products are made and the world does business.

By allowing atoms and molecules to be manipulated to do and create just about anything, nanotech could one day spawn computer screens that can be rolled up like yoga mats and carried anywhere, glass table tops that never get smeared or dirty and diagnostic tests that only require a prick of a finger instead of drawn tubes of blood. Already, khaki-lovers have the luxury of never washing their pants again, thanks to stain-free versions in which chili-dog spills simply can be wiped away.

All of these current and futuristic conveniences can be credited to nanotechnology, which deals in objects the size of one billionth of a meter and will be showcased this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The two-day "Business of Technology" conference that starts Tuesday will bring together Pennsylvania research, companies and seminars with a goal of adding to the state's early claim as a nanotechnology center.

Participants and planners expect it to be a science schmoozefest: There will be investors scouting out potential deals, nano-focused start-ups hoping to lure money and partners, and erudite scientists displaying years of work that could eventually be developed for the marketplace.

"Some people feel like there's been a lot of hype [about nanotech], which is true, but there's a lot of substance as well," said Doros Platika, president and chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, a biotech focused economic development group that is co-sponsoring the conference.

Nanotechnology is not new to Western Pennsylvania.

Companies such as Alcoa and PPG Industries have been doing research in the field and developing nano-sized products for years, said Richard Overmoyer, deputy secretary for technology at the state Department of Community and Economic Development. PPG, for example, already is producing scratch-free paint that was developed at the nano-level.

Conference organizers and participants are hoping this week's event will show off what Pennsylvania has to offer to the rest of the country and lure more researchers, nano-companies and money to the state. That includes the handful of local nano start-ups and university and commercial research.

The race is on to be labeled as a nano-hub, Platika said, because no region or company has become a leader in nanotech yet.

"A lot of areas feel like, 'Hey we have a shot at nano' because there is no dominant player," he said.

Nanotech as an economic development tool makes sense for a local tech industry still struggling to make itself nationally and internationally known.

Plus, say proponents, Pennsylvania universities have strong history in the material sciences -- a discipline critical to nanotechnology.

"In Pittsburgh, we have strengths across the board," said Platika, citing biotech and electronics as areas in which nanotech is predicted to have the most impact. "We may not have a critical mass yet [of companies], but nobody else does either."

Carnegie Mellon University last week added to the momentum by announcing the creation of a multidisciplinary nanotechnology center.

According to Pradeep K. Khosla, dean of the College of Engineering, CMU already has garnered $7 million in federal research dollars.

That nanotech is still fuzzy and new makes it all the more exciting for some young firms. There's a greater chance to shine with fewer players on the field.

Plextronics Chief Executive Officer Andy Hannah's game plan for the conference -- which is expected to draw hundreds, small enough to be manageable, large enough to matter -- is to connect with as many people as possible.

His Harmarville start-up designs electricity-carrying polymers at the molecular level and is "always in fund-raising mode."

For him, the conference is a way to court investors, brainstorm with other nano-firms about shared challenges and possibly connect with larger more established firms that could be potential business partners or customers.

He'll be joined by his UPARC neighbor Alan Seadler, CEO of Crystalplex, whose three-man firm produces crystals the size of five to six billionths of a meter that can be used to simplify diagnostics.

Also in fund-raising mode, Seadler says the conference will make his firm and Pittsburgh more visible to investors hungry for potential commercial nanotechnology developments. "People are aware of the universities, but not necessarily aware of everything that's going on," he said.

First published on April 17, 2005 at 12:00 am
Corilyn Shropshire can be reached at cshropshire@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.