Frontiers of innovation and entrepreneurship in nanotechnology
TheRafael del Pino Foundation organised, on 27 June 2022, the Keynote Lecture "Frontiers of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Nanotechnology" given by Vladimir Bulovic, which was broadcast on www.frdelpino.es.
Vladimir Bulović joined the MIT faculty in July 2000 and is the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies and Associate Dean for Innovation at the MIT School of Engineering. He directs the Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Laboratory and is co-director of the Solar Frontiers Center ati-MIT and the MIT Innovation Initiative. Bulović's research interests include studies of the physical properties of thin films and structures composed of organic and organic nanocrystals, and the development of novel nanostructured optoelectronic devices. He is the author of more than 140 research papers (cited more than 10,000 times) and inventor of more than 50 US patents in the areas of light-emitting diodes, lasers, photovoltaics, photodetectors, chemical sensors, programmable memories and electronic micromachines, most of which have been licensed and used by start-up and multinational companies. He is one of the founders of QD Vision, Inc. of Watertown MA, which produces quantum dot optoelectronic components, Kateeva, Inc. of Menlo Park CA, which focuses on the development of printed organic electronics, and Ubiquitous Energy, Inc. which develops nanostructured solar technologies. Professor Bulović graduated from Columbia University in 1993 and received his PhD from Princeton University in 1998. He has received the Early Carrier Presidential Award for U.S. Scientists and Engineers, the National Science Foundation Career Award, the Ruth and Joel Spira Award, the Eta Kappa Nu Honor Society Award and the Bose Distinguished Teaching Award, was named to Technology Review's TR100 List and in 2012 shared the SEMI Award for North America in recognition of his contribution to the commercialisation of quantum dot technology. In 2008 he was named a Class of 1960 Faculty Fellow in recognition of his contribution to energy education, in 2009 he was awarded the Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, MIT's highest teaching honour, and in 2011 he was named a Faculty Research Innovation Fellow for research excellence and international recognition.
On 27 June 2022, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised a lecture by Vladimir Bulović, Director of the Laboratory for Organic and Nanostructured Electronics at the MIT School of Engineering (MIT.nano), entitled "Frontiers of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Nanotechnology".
It doesn't cost much to invent something new. All we have to do is talk to each other. You'll hear something I've said, I'll be fascinated by something you've said, and together we'll say aha, that's a new idea! That's the invention, the eureka moment. It is the beginning of innovation, which sometimes takes years, which sometimes escapes us because it may not change the world. In fact, we have to rethink the path we have to take, the steps we have to take.
At the nanoscale, gold and plant do not look like gold and silver. If you take a piece of gold and cut it over and over again until you get to ten nanometres, it changes its optical properties. The electrons say: go, I'm in a very limited space. Electrons have a wavelength. They are particles, but they are also very small waves and unless you get a very tiny little box for these nanoparticles to live in, we are not going to notice. What gold and silver do is make these boxes so small that the electrons start to behave differently.
This seems pointless, unless we know what we have to do with it. We have known for a long time. A long time ago, you melted glass, added whatever you had to add, and within two hours you had stained glass. What the nanotechnologists of the Middle Ages did was to get hold of pieces of gold and silver and they got nanoparticles that changed the reflectance inside the glass. That's why stained-glass windows don't lose their colour. Now things are different. You have a metal nanoparticle and we get this electromagnetic radiation that changes its reflective property. So we can get another useful technology.
If you're in Professor Gehrke's lab at MIT, he's going to tell you it's a perfect way to identify Zika, West Nile fever, Ebola. How? The silver nanoparticle changes colour at 11 nanometres in size. What would happen if you added a nanometre-long molecular layer to that particle? Depending on which molecule you use, one virus or another will attach to the nanoparticle. There are specific molecules for Zika, for West Nile fever, Ebola. You don't get the Covid-19; you break it down and get the proteins inside it. If you have this bonding, that nanoparticle is going to be a little bit bigger. The electrons then say they can go somewhere else, they can expand inside that virus. The result is that the colour of the nanoparticle changes.
This technology is achieved with a piece of wallpaper coated with these nano particles. The nanoparticles are not visible until the binding event occurs. That event is achieved because paper is a microcapillary element, i.e. if you pour a drop of coffee on it, it will expand. A drop of blood, too, and whatever is inside it will seek paths until it reaches far away. If it reaches the nanoparticles and it turns out that you have Zika and agglutination occurs, then the nanoparticles start to take on a colour. This test takes twenty minutes. This is important because West Nile fever has been found in remote villages in Africa. Getting there and testing the villagers requires doctors, a refrigerator, and because there are no roads, the whole process of detecting and communicating the results to the population takes several days. By then, the whole village has been infected. Here we have paper strips that don't need to be refrigerated. You just put a drop of blood on it and you have the results within twenty minutes. It's really groundbreaking stuff and all it takes is a little bit of nanotechnology. We have known it from stained glass and in the last few decades we have learned how to manage the nanoscale. Now we can ask ourselves how to use it to make a practical technology, in order to get a test that is really effective.
The nanoscale is tiny. We can manage it very well. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre. A hair is about a hundred thousand nanometres, or a hundred microns. If you compare a hair to a house, it's the same ratio as a nanometre to a hair. But it's a dimension that we have access to, we already have the tools.
Now we can re-imagine many other ideas. Every day we come face to face with the nanoscale many times and we don't think about it, for example, when we smell a coffee. We know it is coffee, even if we don't taste it, because it smells good. Something has gone out of that coffee for us to know, and it's a nanometre. It's gone because it's so small. The aroma of coffee is a tiny molecule. Every once in a while, those molecules collide, they come flying out. That's the vapour that we smell.
A benzene molecule is one third of a nanometre. Any medicine is nano-scale. Our body is continuously interacting with these objects because we want to heal. This scale allows us to define functionality.
DNA is very narrow, it's only one nano. At the time, someone said there was a substance inside me that defined me, although I didn't know what DNA was. Then it took eighty-four years to come up with the image of DNA, which is a weird image with dots that are placed in Xs. That's not a normal refraction image which was a mystery. Crick and Watson said, maybe it's a molecule inside us that looks twisted, and we're going to say that's DNA, that's a very important molecule. Who can believe that? They do now, but not so much then. People said there would be another explanation. It took a decade before they started to listen to them, to postulate that DNA exists and that it is a helical molecule.
Today's tools allow us to reduce these hundred years of discoveries to a student's day's work, but because we know what we are looking for. Today's tools allow us to see the nanoscale and imagine what we can do with it. The first time anyone saw an atom was in the second half of the 20th century, in the late 1980s, because we had the technology that allowed us to see how atoms stick to graphite, how they organise themselves.
What did the rest of the scientists think? In the 1990s we tried to reproduce those experiments. In the late 1990s we were able to select the atom and move it. So they started to generate quantum playpens, little islands of electrons, proving that everything that had been predicted was true. It also allowed us to consider the unimaginable. For ten years we have had the tools to see the nanoscale and what it will allow us to do. We are now at the dawn of the nano, allowing a computer to be ten thousand times more efficient than it is today because I am re-imagining matter and how to use it.
These new tools allow us to understand for the first time how biology works. It was fantastic to sequence DNA. It's always fascinating to think that all cells have DNA, but some express themselves as brain, some as kidney, some as skin, but the DNA is the same. How do you get that difference? By the sequence and folding of the DNA. If I can't see the DNA at the nanoscale, I can't tell what that cell is going to become or what a medical solution might be that could alleviate a medical problem. The same is true for the atoms that make up semiconductors. This is very important if you want to think about batteries, or how you are going to get the strongest material in the world.
Is this important for the development of new ideas? Young teachers are the future, they are the most important, these are the ones I want to see achieve their aspirations. They will only succeed if we support them. The science and engineering faculties are the ones that basically use nano. In science, 51% of the professors need the nanoscale, 17% are going to do research. In engineering, 67% of young people use nanoscale for their discoveries. The road to the future requires the nano. We are on the threshold of the nano. All branches of science are affected by the nanoscale: medicine, life sciences, computational, manufacturing, materials, structures, technology, quantum everything, everything.
To be successful I need an innovation node because otherwise there will be tools, but nobody will come. There are three things you need to do to foster innovation. First, bring people together who come from different disciplines. It is the crossover, the give and take, that allows us to move towards inventions. If we are going to come together, it has to be easy to be together. Then you have to get an environment where you want to talk. Maybe you want to talk to someone and talk about your approach and I'm going to think about whether this is useful for my biological approach because maybe what I need is a template to grow neurons and I can get an artificial liver and you just explained to me as a chemical engineer that you can get those patterns that I'm looking for. Open access and outreach are essential ideas.
The most important thing to achieve these discoveries are formulas for transforming the academic world into something that can be touched. So we have to think about what we need to go from what we imagine to hundreds of people taking advantage of it. We have several start-ups as a result of the M.Engine, a fund that invests in these companies, gives them space and guarantees them tools. At MIT.nano everybody has access. Start-ups find it difficult and expensive. It took a decade for the zip to be commercialised. Production was lacking. The cheap zip needed formulas to get those tiny parts, tools to make them. Velcro took twelve years to commercialise because there was no production methodology.
It seems that innovation does not take that much time. It takes more time to have the pieces, the tools, to use them, to invent a new tool, a new design. This is an element that defines every start-up. We always make the mistake of thinking something that is impossible to manufacture. Then we have to create the factory and design the technology. This is repeated over and over again. The stages are discovery, early development, development, scale and production. These are the stages you have to go through. If you are a start-up you have a very good age, an academic discovery. The next thing is to say you want to bring that idea to life, and that's where you get to the valley of death. Only one in ten ideas get funded and investors are not going to put in everything you need, but just enough to get you to the next valley of death, where you have to ask for more money. They do this because they want to be sure that they don't give too much money and because they know that start-ups will be happy to give them whatever it takes to get through the first valley of death. The next valley of death is what happens when you get to the prototype stage. A quarter of companies reach this point. The next thing is to prove that you can produce millions of units of the prototype. Not all ideas are scalable. If you get through this last valley of death, you have to get a million units produced and sold. Success is 2% and all this is ten years and, adding it all up, you get to a hundred million dollars, which is difficult for anyone to finance. If I give you the money you need in the first year, I want a tenfold increase of my money because I could invest it in the market and, in historical terms, I could get this tenfold increase of my money in the market.
How are you going to consider a start-up? The social value thing doesn't convince investors, so we can't count on investors right now. Last year, about 160 billion was invested in start-ups in the US, and about 2% was invested in hardware. The rest goes into healthcare or digital. To get this new technology we have to be aware that this is almost impossible. What can I do? Then there is MIT.nano. There we have realised that this process is divided in two. The first half is cheap, but the second half is very expensive. If you can make the first half even cheaper, that's fantastic. At MIT.nano we charge very little for everything that goes into the first half. You can get through that valley of death. Of course, it's not going to be easy. You have to work, you have to raise the seed money. But those first two valleys, instead of fifty, will cost two million, and that money can be raised from an investor. So you get to year five or year six and you can say you have the prototype. Or you may realise that the project is not scalable and you don't spend fifteen million, you spend three million. It's about trying other ideas and getting, for a lot less money, other companies to a semi-mature stage. Investors, when they invest, have seen many other options, but only 20% of these companies succeed. The 25% of success is technology; the remaining 75% is everything else: a capable team, whether you can scale the technology, who the stakeholders are, what is going on in the world that you have not been able to predict. So we don't know how to overcome all these challenges. But we do know that, out of a hundred companies, twenty succeed, so we are going to launch with two hundred companies so that forty succeed. That is the premise. So it is good that the first part of this process is less expensive.
Finally, Vladimir Bulović explained what the companies C2Sense, Kateeva, LiquiGlide, AgZen and MIT.nano are doing with nanotenology.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.