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Va. seeks to become leader in field of nanotechnology
[April 10, 2006]

Va. seeks to become leader in field of nanotechnology

(Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 6--Everett E. Carpenter and his team are experimenting with a no-knife-necessary cancer treatment.

It uses magnetized iron particles that could one day travel through the body to target and obliterate tumor cells.

Through research, the assistant professor of chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University is aiding Virginia's quest to become a leader in the field of nanotechnology.

In more than a dozen Southern states including Virginia, there is ample opportunity for improvement if the region cares to make a name for itself in a $13 billion and rising global market.

Several of the South's strengths and weaknesses were highlighted in a report this week from the Southern Growth Policies Board, a group that explores economic-development issues in the region.

Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at an atomic level, thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a sheet of paper.

Advances in the technology mean that medical treatments could be provided without incisions, that materials such as golf clubs or military armor could become more durable, and that computer chips could run faster, improving the way consumer electronics such as iPods or digital cameras operate.

"You're talking about changing the way substances appear in nature," said Peter Jobse,

president of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, a state-chartered nonprofit group that promotes technology in the commonwealth. "Steel as we know it could become rubberlike, but still as strong."

Indeed, Metal Rubber is a trademarked product of Blacksburg-based NanoSonic Inc., a firm spun out of Virginia Tech. The product conducts electricity like metal, but can be stretched and returned to its original shape.

NanoSonic President Rick Claus said a greater statewide coordination among universities and nano-related firms is necessary to bring attention to his industry.

Nationally, the South performs about 20 percent of all U.S. nanotechnology research, the report said. Most takes place in tech-heavy California and in New York and Massachusetts.

In the South, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have the most active nano research among the 13 states and Puerto Rico that are policy board members.

What the South does not have, however, is access to "nanotechnology centers" of companies and investors, the report said. Those clusters are found in California and the Northeast corridor, where the field is flourishing. California and Northeastern states also direct chunks of state money to the field.

Virginia nano-researchers rely largely on federal funding, awards that stem from places such as the National Science Foundation and Defense Department, two agencies in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which has invested more than $6.5 billion in nanotech research since 2001.

Of the Southern states, Virginia and North Carolina have received the most awards from the science foundation, followed closely by Georgia. From 1995-2004, Virginia received $36.8 million in grants from the foundation.

If Virginia plans to become a big name in a tiny world that holds promise for many industries, more equipment and collaboration across research organizations is needed, regional experts say.

The high cost of equipment "can't be justified by the activity of just one institution," said Brian Holloway, associate professor in the department of applied science at the College of William and Mary. But when schools work together and share gear such as microscopes, the purchase could be better rationalized.

Under Virginia budget proposals, millions of dollars could go toward science research in the next two years -- though it is unclear how much of that could go directly toward creating materials on a nano-scale.

Federal dollars usually go toward research, said Lisa Friedersdorf, president of Charlottesville-based nanotech consultancy AdviSci. State money can transfer technology to entrepreneurs who help launch products.

The South's ability to commercialize products and receive patents on new technologies has lagged behind the nation's, the Southern Growth Policies Board's report said. A lack of venture capital money has stymied product creation and the region's ability to attract and expand nanotech firms.

Virginia leads other Southern states in gaining money from the Small Business Innovation Research program, a federal award that allocates a portion of several U.S. agencies' research budgets to small nano-firms.

The cash isn't much, but "it's enough money to take a prototype to show it to another level of investor," said Jobse, with the state Center for Innovative Technology.

And that could turn a science project into a money-maker.

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