Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Nano and nan at NNI

Somebody in the National Nanotechnology Initiative made a mistake and accidentally let me attend its From Vision to Commercialization conference. I guess they didn't see my picture on the "do not admit under any circumstances" leaflets tacked up on the bulletin board.

So, I caught a flight to Washington, D.C., this morning and -- as I was to find out later -- my garment bag apparently decided it would rather hang with the Spring Breakers in Tampa. I don't blame it, but I'd rather have it back with me so I don't have to wear the same outfit for three days. I'm a rumpled journalist, but that's going a bit too far (although I am wearing my

today, so spills do not worry me). Northwest Airlines assures me the bag is on its way to D.C. I'm curious to look at the photos it must have taken with the digital camera I left in one of its pockets.

Anyway, a few hours into the conference and it's already surpassed my expectations. I passed UCLA nanoprof Jim Heath on the way to the conference center. He seemed relaxed, leaning nonchalantly against a wall, talking on his cell phone. He's the guy Small Times called the "rock star of nanotechnology" a year or so ago -- largely, I suppose, because of his long ponytail. However, I saw no evidence that nanogroupies, among the mostly male crowd, were fawning all over him.

I went inside, grabbed my badge and ran into Sean Murdock, executive director of Atomworks, a Chicago-based nanotech coalition. Without missing a beat, Sean and I seamlessly continued a discussion we had begun last December on the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology, and Europe's preoccupation with the

Sean's a nanobusiness person who is also a thinker. We don't agree on some issues, but I enjoy debating with him. I hope he continues to enhance his profile as a spokesman for the nanotech industry.

Then, I entered the conference hall and noticed Zyvex founder Jim Von Ehr sitting in a corner, looking very unassuming for a billionaire who has invested more of his personal fortune into nanotechnology than any other single human on the planet. We made eye contact and exchanged friendly nods. Later, I approached him after his talk and expected to get just get the usual response when a reporter shoves a notebook in his face and asks questions. So, I was surprised when he not only agreed to an interview, but would do it right then, and over lunch.

Apparently, Von Ehr is unfamiliar with the streets of Washington (I suggested that perhaps that's why his particular vision of molecular manufacturing has placed him outside of mainstream nanothought and outside the halls of power. He laughed. More on this idea later). Anyway, a rumpled journalist with only one outfit (temporarily) to his name is wandering the streets of D.C. with a billionaire venture capitalist and the founder of one of the first nanotechnology companies, looking for a place to have lunch.

We finally broke nan at an Indian restaurant, where our half-hour interview turned into an hour-long conversation about many, many issues -- including a few that regular NanoBot readers would be very interested in. Yes, Von Ehr is still a believer. Yes (as evidenced by some of the questions he was asked during his presentation earlier regarding "sticky fingers"), he is still considered outside the mainstream when it comes to his belief in true, bottom-up molecular manufacturing. But Von Ehr is staying out of the limelight and refusing to put up his dukes in the Drexler/Smalley nanoschism. Instead of talking, he's doing -- with or without government blessing. It's good to be Jim Von Ehr.

He's a fascinating guy, but I'll write more later. I should head back to the conference. I'm not sure if they'll let me back in, though. I think I left my badge back at the restaurant.


No comments: