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Oregon's nanotech industry: Can small be large?

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Articles - July/August 2013
Monday, July 08, 2013


Nanoscience — the study of particles as tiny as a billionth of a meter in size — is opening a brave new world. Such particles can behave very differently from larger particles or molecules, and they offer tantalizing improvements to post-modern life: everything from an embedded skin chip whose nano “pores” help tell when it is time to dose with insulin, to tiny dots that form a coating to make eyeglasses scratchproof. But as with all newfangled technologies, nanoparticles can bring unforeseen dangers, as too little is known of their effects on humans and the environment.

For more than a decade, Oregon has built a network of support for new businesses utilizing the novel properties of nanoparticles to innovate in health care, electronics and manufacturing. But the payback — a cluster of healthy businesses drawing more of the same to Oregon — has yet to materialize.

Two of the biggest nano-related companies in the U.S. have a presence in Oregon, nearly across the street from each other in Hillsboro: electron-microscope provider FEI and Intel Corporation. The latter has shipped hundreds of millions of products that incorporate nanotechnology, and there is an Intel connection at practically every nano-related business in Oregon.

On the public side, Corvallis-based Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) is the nexus of local nanoscience advances, helping bootstrap nano-related startups with investments, access to facilities and equipment, and links to the local talent pool. Other members of the support web include the state’s Oregon Innovation Council; business accelerator and tech transfer programs at Portland State University, OHSU, OSU and the University of Oregon; and the Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute (OTRADI).

“It’s a very collaborative community in Oregon,” says ONAMI’s executive director, Skip Rung. “Everyone knows everyone.” Rung says he expects and hopes that in addition to the millions of dollars in sales of Intel chips with “nanotechnology inside,” new nanotech businesses in the state will be worth up to $100 million within the next decade. The global market for nanotechnology is expected to be $50 billion by 2017.

But the pressure is on, as currently there isn’t a substantial stock of seasoned, medium-size Oregon nanotech companies, nor has a nanotech concentration or specialty emerged here. Instead the state has an abundance of companies in early, nonrevenue-generating stages.

There is Beaverton-based Puralytics, which recently began selling the SolarBag water purification system, based on nano-size photocatalysts that break down contaminants with the aid of sunlight. CSD Nano in Corvallis makes antireflective coatings for solar cells and is currently exploring coatings to reduce infrared light and heat from seeping through window glass to make it a superior insulator.

These and other fledgling companies basing their innovations on nanotechnology have glimmers of promise but no guarantee of mainstream success, nor a similarity between them that might be a magnet for venture capital.

“We don’t yet have a nano cluster,” says Eric Rosenfeld, founder of the Oregon Angel Fund, a local venture capital firm. “We have the foundation and some real assets. Now we need more companies to achieve greatness, success and wealth.”

To find out what it will take to make that happen, Oregon Business met with four individuals who play different roles in the state’s nano ecosystem: a researcher, an investor, and two entrepreneurs. The conversations revealed a wealth of energy and drive that could make Oregon a big beneficiary of nanotechnology’s economic rewards. Just not quite yet.

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