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Science seeks to turn its talents to business

Swiss scientists are seeking lessons from the US during a weeklong "Nanotech" roadshow

(swissinfo.ch)

Scientists and businesspeople from Switzerland and the United States have been swapping ideas about how to commercialise nanotechnology.

At a series of meetings in three US cities, they have been discussing how companies specialising in nanoproducts can survive in today's marketplace.

"The scientific culture is not to establish businesses. It's to do basic research and study interesting scientific or fundamental phenomena," said Chad Mirkin, director of Northwestern University's institute of nanotechnology, whose laboratory has spawned two start-up firms.

"One of the biggest challenges is just overcoming that culture and getting people to transform an interesting observation in the laboratory into something that could have potential for commercialisation."

Keep talking

"It's a question of getting researchers and venture capitalists to speak the same language," agreed Albert Zwicker, who is in charge of the business development agency of canton St Gallen.

"I think we have to become better at that in Switzerland," he added. "The banker or the venture capitalist will tell you that there are no good business plans around and the entrepreneurs will tell you that there's no money available.

"It's not true. There is a lot of money and there are good business plans but the business plans do not correspond to what the venture capitalists want to see because they have very specific ideas of what they will be prepared to finance."

Mirkin said the fact that the venture capital community in the US was well established was a great help.

"From a productive standpoint, the good news is that there are lots of folk who have done this in the past - started small companies, developed them and then either sold them or taken them public.

"It's nice not to have five or six but 50 or 60 different venture capitalists that you can approach to get that idea in transition from the laboratory into a viable start-up company."

Investment opportunities

Nanotechnology is widely expected to become a driving force of the world economy within the next ten to 20 years.

Investors are generally looking for a three-to five-year return on investment and are not interested in waiting for products which may take years to materialise.

Participants at the talks in Boston, Chicago and San Jose, California, said investment opportunities were most promising where companies can augment existing products rather than create new ones.

Examples include nanoparticle sunscreen additives or coatings that could improve magnetic storage capacity.

Alternatively, the tools which will build the nanotechnology revolution such as atomic force microscopes are an interesting prospect.

Bridge building

Top Nano 21 is a government-sponsored initiative to further Swiss nanotechnology research and find commercial partners. The programme has funded 200 projects and helped coordinate numerous efforts in the private sector.

Karl Höhener, general manager of Top Nano 21, said companies with promising technologies could easily secure venture capital financing in Switzerland.

However, he has observed one important difference between activities in Switzerland and the US.

"Here in the States, everybody looks after start-ups," he said. "We focus on implementing nanotechnology in existing companies which already have an infrastructure, marketing organisations and customer base.

"The implementation of technology until there is a return from the market is much faster than when you start from scratch."

Besides having a clear product idea and means of production, participants said another important criteria for success were the steps taken to protect intellectual property.

by Vincent Landon, San Jose


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