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Nanotech: The Next American Revolution?

For a U.S. manufacturing community beset by energy, materials and labor costs and struggling to remain competitive in the global economy, nanotech may have a positive impact that rises far beyond its small scale.

By Brad Kenney

Oct. 1, 2007 — Russia’s parliament recently pledged $7 billion for a state-owned nanotechnology corporation, a move that has the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another strong supporter of Russia’s funding measure? Scott Rickert, CEO of Nanofilm Inc., a Valley View, Ohio-based developer of surface care products based on nanotechnology.

“I wish (the Russians) the best,” Rickert says. “There’s always got to be a number two, and the competition is good for business.”

It’s a testament to the state of the nation that such a free-market sentiment sounds so out of place in today’s climate of cutthroat global competition and pushes for protectionist policy. However, innovators like Rickert and the community he represents truly believe that the U.S. stands at the top of the “small world” of nanotech, and has the potential to maintain a large stake in an emerging technology that analyst firm Lux Research places at topping $2.6 trillion in new products and services by 2015.

A “Natural Advantage”

As Rickert sees it, the added vigilance that U.S. regulatory agencies require hasn’t stifled innovation; instead, it makes for an environment of global trust that contrasts U.S. companies with the competition. “We have the best quality and purity control of any country in the world,” he says. “We see that as a big commercial advantage.”

Pankaj Dhingra, CEO of Redwood City, Calif.-based Nanostellar Inc., a maker of nano-engineered catalyst materials, agrees that U.S. companies enjoy a certain “natural advantage,” citing the dynamism of the U.S. capital markets and the entrepreneurial spirit of the business population as the cause. “With any new technology, you need a culture of risk where people have the fire to go out and start their own companies, and a pool of funds to enable that to happen,” he explains. “That’s the big advantage of the American economy — along with the government funding for research, we have a pool of private companies and entrepreneurs that can commercialize that research and take it to industry.”

For an example of how U.S.-based nanotech companies can pave the way to a value-added future, consider the transformation of Akron, Ohio-based Ecology Coatings from a conventional metal finisher into a pioneer in the integration of clean tech and nanotech, with four issued patents (nine others are in the patent pipeline) and licensing deals with the likes of chemical giant DuPont.

President and COO Tom Krotine marks 2002 as the turning point, the year that Ecology Coatings started looking at integrating nanomaterials into its proprietary formulations. “It was a decision based out of necessity more than anything,” he remembers. “We had particular needs for a customer in terms of hardness and clarity, and only nanotech could solve those problems.”

Since that first successful step, Krotine and Ecology Coatings co-founder Sally Ramsey have shepherded the company’s nanotech R&D; efforts toward incorporating some of the other value-added benefits of these materials into the value chain.

“The basis for our paint patents is that they’re stable and durable,” Krotine says. “Usually, when you incorporate nanomaterials into coatings, they tend to clump, but our formulations maintain their discrete nature. This gives the product a longer shelf-life,” he claims. “You can take them out, mix them up and spray them years later.”

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