Dr. Scott Rickert—President, Co-founder, and CEO of Nanofilm —is one of the the top leaders of the Nanotechnology Community today. He was responsible for the original concepts that launched Nanofilm into the nanotechnology arena; was instrumental in the development of the company's first coating called "Clarity"; and continues to set the vision for the company's R&D team. In this interview, author Steve Waite talks to Dr. Rickert about his view of nanotechnology in the coming decade and the role of established companies, start-ups, academia and government. As you will see, Dr. Rickert believes nanotechnology is the software of the 21st century. The interview also explores the evolution of Nanofilm and discusses the company's prospects in the global marketplace.
Dr. Rickert brings a depth of research expertise to the company from his strong academic background; he was a Professor at Case Western Reserve University from 1980 to 1987. He holds a B.S. from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. He currently holds positions on a number of key industry groups, including the Global Advisory Board of the NanoBusiness Alliance. Dr. Rickert frequently lectures and writes on topics in the field and is an intelligent voice in the nanotech community. Since 2005, he has written a column for IndustryWeek http://www.industryweek.com/Author.aspx?AuthorID=84 that we heartily recommend reading and following.
SW: Hello, Scott! Thanks for taking time to speak with the NanoBusiness Alliance today. I thought I would begin with the big picture by asking you about the Nano Decade, which you wrote about in IndustryWeek earlier this year. Tell us about your vision.
SR: Hi Steve. Glad to be with you today. My vision for nanotech in this new decade is really based on a reexamination of a relatively recent technology commercialization case history. In the 1980's, there was a tech industry quite similar to ours, and it became known as the software industry. They were selling something you can't see, smell, or really touch. It was something used in small quantities that had a big impact on the improvement of existing products and the development of new products. Sound familiar?
Nanotechnology, I predict, will follow a similar path of growth and eventual consolidation, with the few resulting merged entities focused on serving all major markets. I also predict that investors will finally appreciate nanotech materials and inventions as components of this new "software" industry that drives so many other industries, and they'll apply the appropriate growth and ROI metrics.
SW: What kind of role do you see established companies like GE, Intel, Monsanto, and Pfizer playing in the Nano Decade?
SR: The established companies will adopt this new "software" of nanotechnology at an ever-increasing rate. The tipping point may be reached in the decade. That will be the point at which it will no longer be an option to skip the adoption of nanotechnology in business. Most companies using software do not develop their own, but partner with software companies for custom development work. Similarly, I foresee these established companies focusing on external joint development efforts as opposed to trying to do nanotech development themselves.
SW: How do start-ups and small companies fit in the Nano Decade?
SR: A true supply chain for nanotechnology is already evolving, which will mature this decade. Some companies will be content to be small and supply custom materials and instruments. Others will be absorbed into existing companies in the supply chain or will attract appropriate investments and grow into stand-alone comprehensive solution providers. There is a path for all nano-companies, one way or the other, to succeed.
SW: Universities and academic research have played an important role in nanotechnology. Do you see this continuing in decade ahead?
SR: Academics initiated the technology and will continue to explore new materials, measurements, and nano-scale properties. That is their appropriate role. However, their role will now become one of supporting, as opposed to creating, a new industry. The hard work for them has already been done. Good work!
SW: How can government do a better job of fostering the development of nanotechnology in the decade ahead?
SR: The government helped the software industry by being one of the largest customers in the early years. That was particularly true of the military. They should do the same job this time, by purchasing and incorporating nanotech products into their supply chain. The military is already buying nanotech-enabled products, but many involved in government purchasing are not even aware of nanotech companies and their products. SBIR initiatives are fine for product development, but do little, in general, to assist in developing the government purchases of nanotech products for the long term. Simply stated, more government purchases mean more incentive to develop for the industry.
SW: What kinds of innovations are we likely to see over the next 3-5 years that could accelerate the penetration of nanotech in the global economy?
SR: The software industry can provide some guidance on how innovation will develop in the global economy. It is clear that the new properties and cost structures associated with nanotech-infused products will allow product developers to think about entirely new types of products, not just improving what they already make. Those introducing entirely new product categories will have the financial wherewithal to withstand a few launch failures along the way. It will be the creation of new categories, however, that will have the biggest lasting impact for the nanotech industry.
SW: Many people are understandably focused on the potential dangers of nanotechnology. What can we do to help educate the public on the promises and positive effects of nanotechnology?
SR: Any new materials development requires extreme caution during production until experience proves that such caution can be somewhat relaxed. Nanotech is not immune from this general rule. The public should be reminded that nanotech already follows traditional health and safety protocols, and will continue to do so. They can be reassured that the industry is engaged in the health and safety process with the government and is committed to safe production facilities and final products.
SW: Ok, let's switch gears and talk about your company. Nanofilm has been in business since 1985. What do you view as the company's major accomplishments over the past 25 years?
SR: Nanofilm has been fortunate in picking markets to serve which are open to new, better, and higher performing optical care formulas and coatings (e.g., the optical and protective lens industry). Our consistent ability to develop nanocoatings and nanocare products, which are enthusiastically accepted by those markets, is a testament to both our innovation and their openness to that innovation.
Today, Nanofilm uses all of that great experience and reputation to help launch new products in other major markets in addition to our long-standing core industries.
SW: Tell us about Nanofilm's work in the ophthalmic industry. Your nano coatings technology has been well received.
SR: High performing nanoscale coatings did not exist in the optical industry before Nanofilm, with the exception of those produced via vacuum deposition. By serving first as a technical member and then a board member of the AR Council of America (an industry organization of eyecare and technical professionals), I helped the industry develop standardized testing procedures for these new types of coatings and care products. These standards, of course, improved over time, and are now widely used throughout the industry. Other members of the Nanofilm team have stepped in to help all levels of the industry to appreciate what nanoscale films can do for consumer satisfaction and advancement of the industry as well as individual companies. We work hard to continue to educate and inform our audiences as developments occur.
SW: What are some of the major opportunities for Nanofilm with its technology in the marketplace today?
SR: We are convinced that the value propositions we have shown in the optical industry can be expanded to other major markets. Of course, the new markets must also be ready to value higher performing products, and these nano-products must fit their short-term and longer-term needs. Developments in the past few years have highlighted the need for nano-coatings and care products in many areas. Global competition and economic uncertainties have pushed many to look for new nanotechnology, whereas, in the past, they were reluctant to do so. Many of these new markets are highlighted on our website, www.nanofilmtechnology.com
SW: What kind of opportunities do you see for Nanofilm outside of North America?
SR: One of Nanofilm's earliest customer partners was Zeiss Optical in Germany. We've simply continued that global strategy over the years, and we sell products around the world - from Germany to Australia, Japan to Finland. Global growth is a key strategy for us and we anticipate that our worldwide reach is just going to continue.
SW: What are some of the key challenges for Nanofilm going forward?
SR: I think Nanofilm's biggest challenge is the one everyone faces right now - a weak economy. Yes, money is tight, and it's fueled fear in the marketplace about doing anything new. We also have to continue helping our partners work through changes in their manufacturing processes that come with the inclusion of nanotechnology. It's not that difficult, but there is a learning curve.
SW: What is your view on strategic partnerships in nanotechnology? Are they important to fostering innovation?
SR: Strategic partnerships are crucial to nanotechnology and innovation. Nanotechnology expertise isn't mainstream yet, and companies need nanotechnology experts to provide the innovation and assure commercial success. Nanotech isn't prohibitively complicated to work into a commercial system, but it's not "plug and play." On the flip side, as I said earlier, the economy doesn't favor small companies and start-ups right now. Partnering with a strong company that has a sound commercial infrastructure in place and a developed market is the way to go.
SW: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs wanting to get into nanotechnology today?
SR: My advice to entrepreneurs is to do your business homework. This isn't the time for blue-sky dreaming or science fair projects. You need to understand the market economy as well as the technology. You need a business plan as much as you need a technology road map. You need to be able to read a balance sheet as well as you read a research report.
SW: One last question. If you could do one thing over again at Nanofilm, what would it be?
SR: Every business has growing pains, and we've had our ups and downs. Still, we've had remarkable success and I'm incredibly proud of this company and its people. Maybe my only advice from 2010 Scott to 1985 Scott would be exactly the same counsel I'm giving today's entrepreneurs. I was a scientist and researcher who had to learn to be a business person, too. I brought in smart business people to help me and teach me, and that's been a keystone in the growth of Nanofilm.
SW: Thanks for your time today, Scott. We wish you and your colleagues at Nanofilm all the best in the future. Here's to the Nano Decade!
SR: Thanks, Steve. It has been my pleasure.
Thanks to Steve and Scott for taking the time to share their thoughts.
More from the Nanobusiness Alliance
At the NanoBusiness Alliance's 9th Annual Washington DC Roundtable (March 15 - 17), we had the opportunity to meet with Senator Ron Wyden and members of Senator Kerry's staff to discuss the reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. They are optimistic the legislation http://rfflibrary.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/the-national-nanotechnology-i... will pass in 2010. The NbA also supports:
H.R.4502: Nanotechnology Education Act
S.2942: Nanotechnology Safety Act