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Trigaux: Why tiny tech is our next big deal

The world is getting smaller, but this is ridiculous.

Five big brains shared their passion 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.

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 mayors and even area school board members.

If this greater metro area wants to become a "nano" player, we darn well better start getting a better grasp on what nanotechnology is and how innovative (more on that phrase below) 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 Inc., 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, whose grasp of advanced weaponry was palpable, praised nanotech in general as a tool to make large electronics systems smaller, less energy dependent and more lethal.

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 "MEMS" — microelectromechanical systems.

The bookends of the roundtable — the first and last speakers — were Big Picture guys. SRI CEO Curtis Carlson 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.

He 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.

"Innovation is our only option going forward," he said, and education is the key.

Draper Lab CEO James Shields had last licks, tying the innovation theme to nanotechnology. What is Draper's mantra to its employees?

"How do you make that smaller?"

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com

Trigaux: Why tiny tech is our next big deal 01/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 10:59pm]
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