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Imagine being able to engineer a membrane with holes so small that trying to put a human hair through one would be like pushing a condo tower through a doughnut hole. Then combine the micro-engineering with some chemistry and biology: You could, for example, adjust the size of the holes so that milk particles would pass through but bacteria wouldn't -- since bacteria are much larger than milk particles. Voila: Longer shelf life and no need for the mechanical process of pasteurization.

Such micro-sieves also allow you to combine liquids that otherwise don't mix, like oil and water, into emulsions. At the microscopic level, an emulsion looks like a collection of droplets; it's conceivable, with the right kind of sieves, to create milk droplets, for example, where the outside of the droplet would be milk while the inside of the droplets would be water. The emulsion would taste exactly like whole milk with almost none of the calories.

That's just for fun. Think about other applications, ranging from fractioning and filtering blood to creating aerosol-based drugs to treat asthma or cystic fibrosis to creating templates for ultra-tiny integrated circuits. Or being able to test drugs not on how they affect a cell, but on precisely how they affect one or more of the 30,000 individual proteins inside that cell.

You now begin to have a sense of the world in which nano- and micro-scientists like Kees Eijkel -- pronounced "Case Ike'll" -- live and work. Eijkel, 45, is a Dutch scientist, a mathematician and physicist by training. Over the course of the next 12 months, he and an organization he heads will play an important role in establishing Florida on the nanotechnology map.

Futurists consider nanotechnology the basis for the next big technological revolution; former President Bill Clinton, as he left office in 2000, gave a speech to Congress urging the nation to exploit its potential. Eijkel, a personable man with a quick smile and wit, enjoys talking about the pie-in-the-sky aspects of his science as much as anyone -- the notion, for example, that eventually we could equip our bodies with internal sensors to warn us at the first sign of cancer or other illness. But what he's really trying to do is push government, science and academia to get together on creating and commercializing nano-science that already exists. "The cell," he likes to say, "is the business unit of life."

In the Netherlands, in his "day job," Eijkel is a co-director of the Mesa+ Institute at the University of Twente. The Dutch, a nation of traders for more than 500 years and the third-biggest investors in the U.S. (think Shell, Unilever), build commercialization into their approach to basic research. A little over two years ago, the Dutch government, which realized the commercial potential of nanotechnology, put $350 million behind a five-year effort to push it. Mesa+ is spearheading the effort. Today, the institute has some 470 people doing micro- and nano-related research -- "probably the largest conglomerate of micro- and nano-research in Europe," Eijkel smiles.

Away from the institute, Eijkel serves as president of MANCEF -- the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (mancef.org), an international organization founded in 1994. (Thanks to one of its founders who has a house in Naples, it happens to be incorporated in Florida.) MANCEF focuses on helping governments, academia and businesses speed up the commercialization of existing nanotechnology rather than trotting out the latest gee-whiz research: "How to partner, how to find financing, what government can do, what academia can do, education and workforce issues," Eijkel says.

Each year, MANCEF puts on an international conference to bring together the "triple helix" of government, business and academia. This year's conference is in Germany. Next year's conference, August 2006, will be here in Florida, in
St. Petersburg. There is no comparable effort elsewhere in the world. It is a significant development in the state's tech life, and Florida's business and government decision-makers need to be aware of it and support it.

The reason the conference will be in Florida is because some very smart people at the University of South Florida's Center for Ocean Technology think like Eijkel and got the center involved in MANCEF. The center has produced some
cutting-edge -- and very robust -- nanotechnology in the form of underwater sensors with a host of applications from water-quality monitoring to homeland security.

Eijkel likes the center because, like his home institute, it thinks about commercialization hand-in-glove with the basic research. The center, he says, "has a lot of interest in making this technology useful to economic growth. It's a very integrated approach."

The center is one of Florida's too-few technological treasures -- it's already spun off one successful firm and a number of technologies in various stages of commercialization. The center also is a model for how entrepreneurism and a university culture needn't be mutually exclusive. Often, outfits like the center become challenges for big schools, which tend to over-manage and under-support them because they make ivory-tower academics and bureaucratic administrators jealous. Instead, innovative, entrepreneurial places like the ocean technology center ought to be examples -- basic business units -- for the rest of the school, and the state, to emulate. That, whatever the science involved, is thinking big.

Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at mhoward@floridatrend.com.