In the high-tech world of tiny science — a field estimated to create a $1-trillion market by 2015 — Florida's universities and businesses are playing catch-up.
The composition of the tiny fibers gives them unique properties, including the ability to use electrostatic forces to capture viruses and other contaminants. Tepper's company, Argonide, combines NanoCeram with other micro-glass fibers to produce a thin meshlike filter that removes viruses and biological pathogens such as anthrax from water. The company is marketing the product as a water purification device for individuals. "Right now, we are designing a filter that can filter four gallons per minute," says Tepper.
Tepper's firm represents a great leap forward. For years, nanotechnology -- the science of manipulating atoms and manufacturing on an extremely tiny scale -- was little more than the stuff of science fiction. In one vision, a 1960s film called Fantastic Voyage, a vessel and its crew were miniaturized and injected into a body to heal the patient.UF lured Bill Appleton away from Harvard University's Center for Imaging and Mesoscale Structures to oversee its $35-million Nanoscience Research Facility.Science took a step beyond theory in the early 1980s, when two researchers at IBM's Research Laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland, invented the scanning tunneling microscope. The device allowed scientists to look at individual atoms on the surface of materials. A decade later, in 1990, IBM researchers showed it was possible to manipulate individual atoms.
Today, scientists in engineering, chemistry, physics, biology and medicine, among others, are working on nanotechnology projects that include new methods of drug delivery, more accurate ways of detecting disease, better ways to protect metals from corrosion and more powerful semiconductors.
There's still no Fantastic Voyage in sight, but some nanotechnology projects, including Tepper's water filters, are starting to hit the market. University of Florida materials science and engineering professor Brij Moudgil says that about 40 private companies are working with UF on nanotechnology projects. And nanotechnology scientists are increasingly thinking of taking their projects beyond the lab. "They are definitely coming closer to commercialization," he says.
Worldwide, approximately 1,500 companies -- 80% of them startups -- have announced nanotechnology research and development plans, according to New York-based Lux Research's Nanotech Report 2004. Last April, Merrill Lynch introduced a nanotech index comprised of 25 publicly traded companies that have a significant percentage of their future profits tied to nanotechnology.
"The emerging nanotechnology market is estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2015," says Neil Jetter, quoting numbers from the National Science Foundation. Jetter is a partner in the West Palm Beach office of the Akerman Senterfitt law firm who specializes in patent prosecution.
In Florida, however, the nanotechnology sector is nearly as tiny as the incredible materials it produces. Only a handful of companies are close to commercializing nanotechnology, and none of the companies in Merrill Lynch's index is in Florida.
"We are way behind," says Syed Murshid, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology. Murshid teaches a graduate course on nanotechnology and is co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation research grant to explore nanotechnology-based photo sensors.
Small Times magazine, a Michigan publication that focuses on nanotechnology, named 10 small-tech hot spots in 2004 as well as seven states to watch, including California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York and Texas. New Mexico's spot on the list is tied to research at the state's two national labs, Los Alamos and Sandia. Florida does not appear on either list. "Florida is not the powerhouse of nano," says James Talton, president and CEO of Alachua-based Nanotherapeutics.
Getting Florida's nano-sector bigger will likely start at its universities. At the University of Florida, the school with the most extensive nanotechnology program in the state, about 120 faculty and 300 to 400 graduate students are working on nanotechnology projects, says professor Moudgil. The university has an estimated $30 million to $40 million in research grants that are nano-related, says David Day, director of UF's Office of Technology Licensing.
In late 2004, UF hired Bill Appleton, director of Harvard University's Center for Imaging and Mesoscale Structures, to oversee the development of a $35-million Nanoscience Research Facility, scheduled for completion at UF in 2008, that will be part of a Nanoscience Institute for Medical and Engineering Technology. "Major universities and major companies are building these kind of facilities," says Appleton. "It is a very impressive move by the state of Florida."Nano News
This official site for the National Nanotechnology Initiative includes research news, funding opportunities, nanotechnology curricula development information for K-12 teachers. There are also information sources for students interested in nanotechnology careers.
Impressive, at least, until compared to the Nanotechnology Research Center that the Georgia Institute of Technology announced in late 2003. Georgia Tech will spend $81 million, more than double UF's $35 million, on a 160,000-sq.-ft. facility funded with $45 million in Georgia state money and $36 million from an anonymous donation. At UF, the entire $35 million is state money.
The nano scramble
UF isn't alone among Florida schools in the nanotechnology field. At least some nanotechnology research is going on at many of the state's universities. Most significantly, the University of Central Florida is establishing a Nanoscience Technology Center. To run the program, UCF recruited James J. Hickman from Clemson University. Hickman, who has a doctorate from MIT, has been doing nanoscience research for more than 15 years. He is in the process of recruiting faculty for the program. "The plan has put aside 35 slots for this area," he says, adding, "I want to hire really good people." UCF's $10 million in legislative funding for a Florida Photonics Center of Excellence also is helping the school expand into nanophotonics. Hickman says that a dedicated interdisciplinary nanoscience building at UCF is probably three to five years away. At the University of South Florida, a small 12,000-sq.-ft. nanotechnology building is already being built in order to help consolidate nanotechnology research at the campus.
There are other positive signs for Florida in the nanotechnology arena. "Just the fact that Scripps is moving here," says Jetter, the West Palm Beach lawyer.
If Florida is playing catch-up in the nanotech field, so is the U.S. In late 2003, President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. It authorized $3.7 billion over four years in nanotech research spending by five government agencies -- the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, NASA, Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology.
In fiscal 2004, federal spending on nanotech research totaled $849 million -- not a vast sum in a global context. "Japan is spending almost as much as we are," says FIT's Murshid. Indeed, Japan funded $800 million in nanotechnology research in 2004, while the European Union countries furnished $650 million, according to a report by Intel. "We're behind per capita," says Timothy Morey, associate professor of anesthesiology at UF and a co-owner of NanoMedex, a Gainesville nanotechnology company.
As Florida and the U.S. government debate how much money to put into nanotech and where, nanotechnology entrepreneurs are moving forward. Argonide's Tepper is marketing his water filters to a company that makes products for campers and backpackers. He's also working on an Air Force contract to see if the filters are suitable for the military. The Army is also interested, Tepper says.
Ironically, Argonide's researchers don't come from UF, UCF or any other Florida university. They are Russians from Siberia, who for decades used their scientific skills for weapons programs.
Before forming Argonide, Tepper spent almost four decades as a scientist and then executive with a Pittsburgh multinational company that makes homeland security and emergency worker protection products in the global market. "I've been used to carrying technology to market," he says.
Like many nanotechnology entrepreneurs, Tepper's research curiosity has a practical bent. His research took him in many directions before he settled on the water filters. "One of my driving focuses is to make money," he says.