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Predicting the Coming Breakthroughs in Nanotechnology
36 cobalt atoms set in an oval at an IBM laboratory using a scanning tunneling microscope. This structure is 5,000 times smaller than a human hair. The purple atom on the right is generating a mirage of itself on left, which may be used for data transfer.

Predicting the Coming Breakthroughs in Nanotechnology

UCLA scholars study the economics and sociology of high tech inventions to chart where the centers of the next wave of submicro innovation may be located.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

The two strongest factors are the number of top scientists at nearby universities and the existence of a large pool of highly skilled workers.

Economist Michael Darby and sociologist Lynne Zucker have spent much of the last decade studying the rise of industries based on exotic new technologies. They have published widely on gene splicing and genetic engineering. Recently they have turned their attention to the promise of nanotechnology, the submicro world of machines made of a handful of atoms. Much of this is still in the science fiction stage, envisioned in works like "The Diamond Age" by author Neal Stephenson, where microscopic devices that can kill or cure are unknowingly ingested with a swallow of coffee, or thousands of essentially invisible flying cameras track hunted individuals on behalf of governments or shady corporate elites, or walls are painted with a material that can change its color because it is composed of millions of infinitesimally tiny machines. But this is not all fantasy. Tools to create such devices are already past the planning stage. IBM has demonstrated a latticework of magnets and semiconductors only billionths of a meter across that assembles itself in a beaker. The company hopes to make of this a new material that can be used in quantum computing. Other companies are working on other projects, while serious scientists are predicting machines small enough to be injected into the human body that can hunt down and destroy cancer cells or change the color of one's hair at will.

Michael Darby is Cordner Professor of Money and Financial Markets at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management. Lynne Zucker is Professor of Sociology and Policy Studies and director of the Center for International Science, Technology, and Cultural Policy.

Darby and Zucker's current research is funded in part by a grant of $84,500 from the UCLA International Institute's Global Impact Research program. An early product of their study is the paper (attached below), "Grilichesian Breakthroughs: Inventions of Methods of Inventing and Firm Entry in Nanotechnology." The Grilichesian of the title refers to Zvi Griliches (1930-1999), who back in 1957 published a seminal article on the preconditions for the explosion of products in corn hybridization that transformed much of the world's food supply. Griliches postulated that big technical breakthroughs depended on a group of related factors: the invention of the tools or procedures that would be needed to then invent a group of related new products that could be expected to command large corporate profits, that the expected products could be protected from imitators long enough to recover high R&D expenses in developing them ("appropriability"), and that the products could be expected to reach a large market at an early date ("acceptance"). The result of such a concatenation of favorable conditions kicks off what is called "metamorphic progress," in which the invention of the new "method of inventing" bears fruit in the rapid development of a large number of new products based on the new toolset.

The two main past examples Darby and Zucker give of such a metamorphic progress are Griliches' original one of corn hybridization, and recombinant DNA or gene splicing. In corn hybridization what was done was to double cross-breed two hybrid strains of corn to produce variants closely tailored to particular climates or soils. (In double cross-breeding, type A is crossed with type B, type X with type Y, then A-B is crossed with X-Y.) The technique was widely and rapidly adopted because of greatly increased yields, but was chosen for investment by seed producers because only the original crop would breed true, requiring the farmer to come back to the seed company each year for new seeds. Historically, before this invention, no one wanted to invest in long-term and expensive experiments to improve crop varieties because once sold, the market would disappear, as each farmer would just plant the next season's crop from the last.

Analogously with recombinant DNA, the process depended on a resource not easily copied by imitators, in this case highly skilled academic scientists who were the only ones to fully understand the gene splicing process as applied to any particular application of it, such as the laboratory growth of human insulin from bacteria by changing the bacterial gene set, pioneered by Genentech in 1982. The promise of extending such trade secrets into legal patents was assured "when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 approved patenting of life forms created by genetic engineering," which then gave genetic engineering companies the incentive to fund the expensive research that has since spawned a wide range of genetically created forms of human tissue and plant variations.

The biotechnology example is closer to the emergent nanotechnology industry, as both depend on research by star scientists at major universities.

Darby and Zucker pinpoint the beginning of the required nanotechnology inventor's toolkit to the invention of the series of super high resolution microscopes starting with the scanning tunneling microscope invented by IBM in 1981, followed later by the atomic force microscope. These microscopes enable scientists to view and manipulate individual atoms. A famous example is the scribing of the letters 'IBM' by positioning xenon atoms on a nickel surface using a special scanning tunneling microscope. The letters are each about 6 nanometers across (one nanometer = one billionth of a meter).

The Gathering Preconditions for the Industrial Nanotech Revolution

Darby and Zucker note the rapid growth of interest in scientific journals in nanotechnology following the invention of atomic scale microscopes. While rarely written about before 1990, in the decade that followed more than 2 percent of all science and engineering articles have been on these subjects. For their paper, Darby and Zucker began with an Institute of Scientific Information 2000 database of all journal articles about nanotechnology in which at least one author is affiliated to one of the top 112 U.S. research universities (more than half of all articles in the world published on these topics are by American authors). They identified which among these papers are the most cited by other authors ("high-impact academic papers") and used the home addresses of the authors to define high science sections of the country. They correlated this information with data on firms currently investing in this field and whose staff scientists publish in journals (it is a regular practice in this field for private sector scientists to publish their results as soon as patents have been obtained). Lastly the two authors correlated National Science Foundation grants over an 18 year period to further aid in identifying regional science bases.

One of their conclusions was: "Where commercial opportunity is built on fast-advancing academic science it is generally more economical to establish commercial laboratories and even manufacturing facilities near the universities than to try to move the scientists and their network to an existing firm location." The two strongest factors Darby and Zucker discovered in predicting strong science bases in a given region are the number of top scientists at nearby universities and the existence of a large pool of highly skilled workers, this last measured by local wage scales. "Firms enter nanotechnology," they write, "near where top scientists are making breakthrough discoveries and where skill levels in the work force are high."

Most of the experimental work thus far is in semiconductors, integrated circuits, and superconductors (about 62% of entries) and much of the rest is in biology, medicine, and chemistry. Venture capital, Michael Darby and Lynn Zucker conclude, comes in to support already created technical opportunities rather than having the strength to create them itself.

They conclude that "many of the best nano scientists and engineers maintain their academic positions and research programs while co-founding and guiding new entrants or continuing relationships collaborating at the bench-science level with scientists from incumbent firms."

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