January 11, 2011

In Albany, A Public-Private Hybrid Aims To Bring Nano To The Marketplace

By: by Gwyneth K. Shaw, New Haven Independent


ALBANY, N.Y.-Walk down one 150-foot hallway inside the building known as NanoEast, and you get an immediate sense of what convergence means at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

Behind one door is a company that builds the clean rooms used to build semiconductors. Keep walking, and a student laboratory comes into view behind a long glass window, chock full of state-of-the-art equipment. Tucked in between are faculty offices and classrooms.

This hallway is a tiny fraction of the sprawling complex at CNSE, which is at 800,000 square feet and expanding. A tour leaves you feeling as if you should have brought bread crumbs to find your way out. On a recent day, the behemoth bustled with activity, as undergraduates celebrating the completion of an exam mingled with workers carefully pushing front opening unified pods, or FOUPs, containing stacks of the delicate wafers essential to building semiconductors.

This is exactly what college officials, and their patrons in the state government, had in mind when they began building here nearly a decade ago-a true partnership between academia, government and industry. It's a model that many nanotechnology boosters believe is the best way forward as innovations move from the lab into real-life applications.

Nanotechnology, which leverages the super-properties of super-small particles, is already in items like bike frames, skin creams and cancer treatments, as well as computer chips. Scientists are constantly tinkering with new materials, new properties, and new applications. But major manufacturing-and the commercial success that is projected to go with it-have been slower to develop.

Here at Albany, part of the State University of New York system, seed money from the state government has been leveraged with grants and private investment to create a truly integrated center. Standing in the lobby of NanoEast, one of several geographically-named, interconnected buildings, CNSE Vice President for Marketing and Communications Steve Janack points to the upper floors and ticks off the companies with a presence upstairs and scattered about the facility.

IBM is here, as is Applied Materials, another company involved in the production of the semiconductors that are the backbone of the industrial presence. SEMATECH, an international consortium of manufacturers, was a key anchor for CNSE.

Inside the clean rooms that foster research and development, competitors often work in adjacent spaces.

Amid all this, students working on degrees ranging from bachelor's degrees to doctorates focus first on academics, then move into the real-life work. Many start with internships at on-site companies, and often move into jobs with those same companies after graduation. There are nano-based programs in engineering, economics and materials science, among others. CNSE also has a joint program with Albany's business school.

Some of the equipment in the complex exists nowhere else in the U.S., a drawing point for students. Even local businesses have found a way to innovate, inventing tools for CNSE clean rooms that they're now selling elsewhere.

The school also focuses on public outreach: More than 38,000 people from the greater Albany area came through the complex and other area sites last year, including 8,000 students. The biggest event is typically "NANOvember," a month-long promotion of nanotechnology and its impact on our everyday lives.

The state has put about $800 million into CNSE, Janack said, but that investment has been returned sevenfold.

"It's a new model for doing business," Janack said. "It's being talked about everywhere, but it's being done here."

For Alain E. Kaloyeros, a physicist who is now the senior vice president and CEO at CNSE, this is the future. The model of decades ago, where a Bell Labs or a Xerox PARC pushed privately-funded innovation, no longer works, he said. But bringing together academics, industrial partners and government does.

"Companies can't afford to do their own R&D anymore," Kaloyeros said.

Federal and state governments can't foot the entire bill either. But joining forces has lots of advantages, he said: Academic research, which can stand alone, also has the chance to make a real-time impact. Students increase their odds of finding long-term work, and taxpayers see a tangible benefit from the government's seed money.

"This is a powerful economic development tool," Kaloyeros said.

As CNSE expands, Kaloyeros said, he wants the center to focus on three key areas: "nanobio," which is the growing field of bringing nanotechnology into cutting-edge medical applications; the development of alternative energy sources; and homeland defense. All three are promising, both as government priorities and as commercially viable sectors.

CNSE has also built in a component that focuses on environmental health and safety (see related story), a field that is increasingly emphasized as nanotechnology continues to turn up in consumer products. Kaloyeros said being able to integrate that into R&D efforts is especially helpful, since federal agencies generally don't get involved in evaluating the safety of a product until it's basically ready to go on the market.

Kaloyeros dismissed the idea that there might be downsides to the public-private partnership. Academic freedom remains paramount for the Albany faculty, he said.

The partnerships "are actually the solution," not a problem, he said.

What remains unclear is whether CNSE is a one-off success, or whether other universities and regions can duplicate it. Many states, as well as the federal government, have considered nanotechnology to be an ideal place for research and economic development investment for much of the past decade, and federally-designated and -funded research centers have created large portfolios.

With pressure coming to now translate some of that research into commercial applications, Kaloyeros said he'll keep recruiting new partners, scraping for new funding, and setting the standard.

"Other areas of the U.S., in my mind, should be able to implement hybrid versions of this model," he said.