30 July 2007

Soccer Playing Nanites?

Not quite, but getting there. Charlie Bess, an EDS Fellow, comments on this in a recent post on their EDS' Next Big Thing Blog (one of my favorite, must read blogs).

"Most of what I hear about nano-tech is based on taking advantage of the different chemical and physical properties, incorporating them in a relatively static fashion in commercial products. This competition shows a glimpse of a more interactive set of tasks performed by devices that have been manufactured near the nano-scale."

Charles, you couldn't be more correct. MSM, even a lot of bloggers, confuse all things "nano" and MEMS. They fail to understand that there is a huge difference between the nano world, which is heavily dominated by materials science, and MEMS. And the fact that there is sometimes overlap between the two adds to the public's confusion.

When I describe MEMS, the reply that I hear back most often is, "Oh, you mean the nanites on Star Trek." Well, I guess I do. Others have said, "You mean like the movie Fantastic Voyage." Yes, I guess, but with itty bitty robots instead of "Honey, I Shrunk ..." people. And going forward, I'll send everyone to view the robotic fly demo video, a near-MEMS device designed for covert surveillance and currently featured on the MIT Technology Review web site. DARPA funded, but that goes without saying. Gee, I wonder how many Web 2.0 (ad)ventures have been funded by DARPA?

For "nano," i.e., the way it's normally described in technical literature, it's much more about materials such as carbon nanotubes and applications in solar cells, things like this.

And for those a bit more knowledgeable, I'll argue that what Feynman was really talking about way back when was more closely related to MEMS, actually NEMS: Manufacturing at the nanoscale.

Both have their place. It's hardly an either/or situation. I've seen practical apps with nanomaterials and social cells, and MEMS fabrication techniques used in the production of solar collectors (panels). I also differentiate the two by noting a key part of the acronym "MEMS": "Mechanical." This isn't something usually associated with "nano." But the good 'ol nanites on Star Trek were MEMS (actually, NEMS) in every sense.

Watch out U.S.: China is a major player in this space and as the outsourcing hub for China's premier technical university, Tsinghua, we're in the thick of some MEMS projects (nothing on nanomaterials, though). This is turf that may very well be dominated by the U.S. and China ... and an area where India isn't even a top ten player. In Asia, it's China vs. Japan in the MEMS and nano supremacy race.

BTW, for those of you who actually read this, isn't it nice to read about something that isn't Web 2.0 related? Instead of Milk of Magnesia, I'm recommending TechCrunch, Scobleizer and Micro Persuasion as free alternatives. I'll be writing a lot more about MEMS (in general) and what is happening in China (specifically) in forthcoming Letter from China columns.

Based in China, David Scott Lewis is SVP with Startech Global Corporation, the outsourcing hub for Tsinghua University (China's MIT). In addition to his bizdev/GAM responsibilities, he authors their Tech China blog.

Photo courtesy of the MEMS Image Gallery.

P.S.--I'm in the process of writing a column titled, "Arrington, Rubel and Scoble: Three Monkeys in a Tree." Should be a fun read.


Part I ::


I didn't mention this in this column, but in a past life (from 1986-1993), I was in the MEMS sector, both directly and indirectly.

The firm I was with back then was using Swiss watchmaking robots with 5 micro resolution for the manufacturing of invasive and in vivo medical devices. We leveraged a couple of contracts, one for in vitro diagnostic test kits for Hybritech and another for plasmapheresis devices for a division of Baxter, to eventually dominate this sector (i.e., medical devices and biodiagnostics) with our MEMS manufacturing capabilities. We didn't market things quite like this (and I was in charge of bizdev, including marketing, new business development and global account management), but we played off the basic theme, combined with computer vision inspection and even things like 3D profilometry. (The company morphed into a genomics company and is still in the MEMS space, now focused on microfluidics. See BioDot, http://www.biodot.com .)

I then started a venture called EndoCath with the head of UC Irvine's cardiology department. We focused on making endarterectomy devices using "nano" techniques, tapping into the molecular self-assembly lab at Harvard. We applied for a NIH SBIR Phase I grant, but lost by a few points (or so it seemed). What we were proposing was a bit out there and in retrospect, would have been better served by MEMS than by "nano" (i.e., "nano" as defined by a focus on materials and SAM -- self-assembled molecules). Yes, we were 15-20 years too early (I learned this lesson in the AI sector as well), but this is where things are definitely going. BTW, this was back in the early 90's, too!! Just imagine how far things have come.

Part II ::


As I reread this column and my comment, doesn't all the Web 2.0 nonsense really seem like a pile of crap? Toys for boys, rather than real technology. Web 2.0 has redefined "IT" from "information technology" to "information toys". Alas, I'm sharpening my knives for my forthcoming Arrington-Rubel-Scoble attack. The only thing I'll say right now is that Vinnie Mirchandani comes out the winner (and in a fight that he's not in, no less) ...

See http://dealarchitect.typepad.com/deal_architect/