Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Danville and the 'Valley of Death'

Jerry Gwaltney, city manager of Danville, Va., recently told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that nanotech company Luna Innovations Inc. is creating new employment opportunities in his community. Well, some excellent blog work by Jeff Sturgeon of The Roanoke Times reveals that the company's heavily promoted public-private partnership has broken down, with Luna unable to meet its end of the bargain.

According to a recent SEC filing, Luna will probably have to return some or all of $900,000 it received from host city Danville because it could not meet its investment and hiring targets. And this news comes just ahead of Luna's planned initial public offering.

Back in November 2003, I noticed what I called an "almost desperate wish that nanotechnology will succeed as a last best hope for the economy."

And we all still want this wish to come true. But local and national government officials should also keep in mind that the nanotech business community is selling nothing more than possibilities. Just as nanotech will likely play a part in curing cancer ... someday, nanotechnology will probably drive economic growth ... eventually.

But despite what you may read about a "trillion-dollar" industry, nanotechnology as it exists today plays an insignificant role in most industries and employs very few people outside of academia.

Over the past four years, I have observed a group of disconnected entrepreneurs, scientists and opportunists create the illusion of a "nanotechnology industry" out of sheer will. They are now promising local and national economic revival based on this same mythical industry -- if only the government can give them a boost.

Well, good for the salesmen. I say more power to the mythmakers. It is, after all, the American way to cook up actual opportunity from equal measurements of hokum and hope. But Danville, Va., reminds us that even good intentions and a government handout cannot walk nanotech through the "valley of death" before it is ready to make the journey.

Update: Jeff Sturgeon's Luna story appears in today's Roanoke Times, and he's updated his blog with a link to the Danville city manager's Senate committee testimony.

Learning a living with Luna
Cancer death to cancer detection
The developing world and the myth of industry

No comments: