Tiny country - big science

The academic-industrial relationship is deepening as both sides seek an advantage in nanotechnology.

Last Sunday, the High Tech Management Forum at the Israel Center for Management (MIL) met to discuss “Nanotechnology – The Tiny Kingdom”. Representatives from 30 companies dealing with various aspects of nanotechnology got the impression that Israel could become a major player in this emerging science, if academic research is quickly and smoothly transferred to industrial applications.

Technology transfer from academe to industry is not a new idea, but four Israeli universities (Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology) recently announced the establishment of nanotechnology centers, at investments of tens of millions of dollars. Plans are getting underway to convert the research into commercial products.

Reuven Shemer, deputy general manager of Yissum Research Development Company, the technology transfer division of Hebrew University, says that research by Israel Prize winner Prof. Itamar Willner of the Institute of Chemistry at Hebrew University has already led to cooperation with a Swedish company. Willner’s biosensor project combines electronics and enzymes that detect gunpowder and mines. The project with the Swedes is intended to detect drugs. The Swedish partner has invested $2 million in development, receiving exclusive rights to some of the applications developed.

Prof. Mina Teicher of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Bar-Ilan University claims that although nanotechnology is a hot topic, the universities tend to finance projects though grants and other methods, usually at the discretion of the researcher. “The level of nanotechnology research in Israel is very high, even though the field requires special and costly tools,” she says. “It is often thought that Israel lags in fields requiring such equipment, and breakthroughs have already been missed, due to the lack of suitable equipment.”

Teicher believes that the fact that nanotechnology has become a media and scientific buzzword helps projects to more quickly commercialize research than would otherwise be the case, leading to collaborate with entities, often European, who pay for equipment and applications.

Teicher says the way to promote nanotechnology is to carry out multi-university projects, collaborating and sharing equipment and research. They also jointly cooperate with international organizations such as the EU Sixth Framework Programme to finance the research. The Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport and Israel Scientific Foundation also provide support.

Teicher says to make Israel into a successful nanotechnology research center, it is necessary to foster lure back post-doctorate fellows who have left the country for tenured university posts overseas. In contrast to other universities, Bar-Ilan University has not announced a nanotechnology fund-raising campaign, but for many years has had an Advanced Materials Center that conducts research into nanotechnology-related chemistry. Although Teicher prefers not to comment on the subject, the university’s own financing is adequate for the center’s activities.

The patent's the thing

Biodata is a company that provides business intelligence for the biotechnology industry. Biodata CEO Sara Furie asserts that the universities fund-raising attempts would be more successful if they would exploit global databases on the subject. These databases include valuable material about companies in the field, which would help researchers and entrepreneurs learn about the state of academic research and the industrial market.

Furie cites the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which handles the largest budgets for grants, and the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is scheduled to inject $710 million in nanotechnology research in 2003, compared with $604 million this year. The NSF has a website detailing funding organizations and how to apply. It is important to note that the NSF does not support independent research, but funds companies’ research. Israeli companies can apply only if they submit applications jointly with a US company. Another source is MITRE, a non-profit organization that funds research by the US Department of Defense, Department of the Treasury and US Navy.

As in any competitive industry, the best way to protect exclusivity is to register patents.

The point is the application

Intel Capital Israel director Shlomo Caine has also been looking for investment opportunities in Israeli nanotechnology. However, the criteria set by Intel (Nasdaq:INTC) are tough. “We use silicon, so our approach to future semiconductor developments is silicon based,” he says. In order to manage the exponential growth in the number of transistors fitted onto a chip, while minimizing chip size to preserve their suitability for PC, mobile and other devices, Intel is looking for ways to produce smaller chips.

As "Moore's Law" predicts, the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months, so that by the end of this decade, processors working at 30 Gbps would be possible, but they would include over 2 billion transistors. For the sake of comparison, current Pentium processors have 42 million transistors, and the Banias processors for mobile devices under development at Intel’s Jerusalem lab, use 65 million. “At this rate, by the middle of the decade, transistor density in processors will give off heat at temperatures equivalent to that of a nuclear reactor,” explains Caine. “Temperatures only found on the sun are already being measured for processors of 2010.”

To avoid this heat, while keeping chips small enough for use in ordinary devices, Intel and other chip and communications and memory components manufacturers are looking for technology that can produce great numbers of chips on tiny surfaces, and if possible, have low-heat, high-conductivity properties.

Nanotechnology developments that will help Intel solve this problem focus on alternatives to lithography using miniaturized components to wire transistors and self assembly by atomic layer thin film processes.

As to the question whether there will be a need for the computer power these processors will offer, Caine replies that he expects AI applications, gesture recognition, as well as odor identification and fabrication. “In this industry, speed and applications develop hand-in-hand,” he said. Intel plans to look for nanotechnology investments in cooperation with other entities, including Millennium Materials Technologies Fund (MMT).

Millennium invests in companies developing special materials, including several companies in the nanotechnology field. One investment is in Nanolayers, a Molecular Layer Epitaxy (MLE) technology, a patented nanotechnology developed at the Hebrew University designed to grow material layers for the semiconductor and other industries. Another investment is in NanoPowders Industries, which is developing nanoparticle production of precious and non-precious metals.

MMT is planning to raise up to $100 million for its new fund by the end of the year. MMT Management managing partner and CEO Nir Belzer warns about over-cautiousness by investors in nanotechnology. Millennium recently celebrated the first exit of its 15 investments of its two funds, Ceramight, a developer of ceramic-metal composite materials for industrial purposes, for an undisclosed sum. Ceramight merged with Triton Systems spin-off Ceracom. The deal is ostensibly proof that a nanotechnology company can make a rapid exit, instead of taking decades, as conventional wisdom in the industry has it.

“I like the attempt to categorize nanotechnology companies by name or by the precise size of the material they work with,” says Belzer. “The relevant question is what application will be derived form the development. That is where the concept nanotechnology is more significant.”

Belzer gives the example of a portfolio company Sol-Gel Technologies, which is developing miniature capsules containing organic materials for use in the cosmetics and other industries. “I was once asked why not make these components at micro, rather than the nano-sized. If they’re too small, they’ll penetrate the skin, and in this specific case, that wouldn’t serve its purpose.”

The technology is the goal

While venture capitalist Belzer and corporate investor Caine are looking for products, some people are taking a longer perspective. Some Israeli start-ups, established companies and academics are aiming to organize a consortium under the auspices of the MAGNET program (Generic Pre-Competitive Technologies and Research and Development). If approved, the consortium, named NFM, will have 108 members, and develop generic technology for future basic technological uses, rather than toward a specific product.

This activity coincides with the intention to keep abreast in basic nanotechnology research and development. The participating companies will cooperate in designing, creating and manufacturing nanocomponents. The consortium’s activities will allow the participating companies to earn MAGNET support, exempt them from repaying royalties and other benefits. In return, the developments derived from the cooperation will be registered to and shared by all participants.

Published by Globes [online] - www.globes.co.il - on May 2, 2002

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