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Robert Trigaux

Big brains salute tech that makes things small



The world is getting smaller, but this is ridiculous. Five big brains shared their passion Friday morning for nanotechnology — a fancy sounding discipline that makes products and systems ever smaller — at a morning “global technology roundtable” at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater.

Curtiscarlsonsri_2 The bookends of the roundtable — the first and last speakers — were Big Picture guys. First up was SRI International CEO Curtis Carlson (in photo) who spoke eloquently about “innovation” and the dire need for U.S. schools to formally teach it. He showed a century-long chart of the largest corporations indicating they do not stay “big” as long as they used to, because they can’t innovate effectively on a global scale. (Photo by Dirk Shadd of the St. Petersburg Times.)

Carlson also skewered Washington and the federal government for smothering innovation. “How many IPOs (initial public offerings) have there been in the U.S. in the past 18 months?” One, he lamented while criticizing the Sarbanes-Oxley law that many think places undue expense on small businesses.

“Innovation is our only option going forward,” Carlson said, and education is the key. It's all a themeInnovationbycurtiscarlson_2  elaborated upon in Carlson's book called, appropriately, Innovation: The 5 Disciplines for Creating What Consumers Want.

Why care? Because the Tampa Bay area’s academic and business communities are taking a critical step by embracing nanotechnology as one of the red-hot technologies of the future — and spending the resources to import some top talent to make it happen here. Friday’s roundtable attendees ranged from business people and economic development officials to city mayors and even area school board commissioners. If this metro area wants to become a “nano” player, we darn well better start getting a better grasp on what nanotechnology is and how innovative its promise may be.

It’s worth mentioning where the panelist’s firms are headquartered. Not here. SRI International is in California, RTI International is in Research Triangle Park, N.C. And The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Genzyme Corp. and Raytheon are all based in Massachusetts. Scientists and engineers pitched nanotechnology’s virtues in areas ranging from cancer treatment and energy efficiency to defense systems. While some layman’s subtitles might have helped at times, the nanotech message was loud and clear. Making systems smaller and smaller — even invisible to the eye — is a world-changing trend.

RTI vice president David Myers suggested nanotechnology can help us squeeze more from energy resources. “Increasingly, countries will compete based on their energy efficiency,” he argued. Raytheon R&D vice president John Zolper praised nanotech as a defense industry tool to make large electronics systems smaller, less energy dependent and more lethal.

Jamesshieldsdraperlabceo_3 Already, two nanotech powerhouses have landed in the Tampa Bay area. SRI hooked up with USF St. Petersburg to exploit some USF-created projects that include nanotechnology. Draper Lab started operating out of space at USF Tampa, and just bought a building in St. Petersburg now dubbed the “Multi Chip Module Center” where it will design and produce nanotech called “MEMS” — microelectromechanical systems.

James Shields, CEO of Draper Laboratory, had last licks on the roundtable panel, tying the innovation theme to nanotechnology. What is Draper’s mantra to its employees? Said Shields: “How do you make that smaller?” (Photo courtesy of Draper Lab.)

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:23am]


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