Sep. 26, 2005 - Nanotech is almost always about doing things differently. Recently, one of the earliest organizations devoted to nanotechnology went through some changes, too. The Foresight Nanotech Institute, a public interest think tank with a 20-year history at the forefront of nanotechnology theory, wants to become involved in its more immediate uses as well. Scott Mize was brought on as president a year ago to help execute that transition. He talked with Small Times' David Forman about the institute's history, its new charter and the road ahead -- both near term and long term -- for nanotechnology.
Q: The Foresight Nanotech Institute has gone through significant changes in the last year that coincided with your joining the organization, so let's start there. Why did you take this position?
Well, it was a significant challenge. Foresight had played a very significant role in the beginnings of nanotechnology, including basically coming up with the initial concept and being the initial folks that educated the public. And a lot of people don't know this, but 2006 is the 20th year of Foresight. So it's had a very successful 20-year history of educating the world about nanotechnology but really needed to go into a new phase.
Foresight needed to say, what's our place in the ecology going forward? And what role can a public interest think tank play in driving the future of nanotechnology in its current state? Just the challenge of taking an organization with that legacy and building it to its next phase was pretty intriguing, and leveraged on a lot of skills that I have and resources that I have that I could bring to the table.
Q: What are you now trying to accomplish? In broad strokes, what do you want this organization to be?
I think if you characterize the focus of Foresight for the first 19 years, it was long-term technology -- (exploring) the implications of the potential of this long-term technology. And we decided to add a near-term and mid-term focus to that.
Our organizing principle is what we call the Foresight Nanotech Challenges. It involves six challenges that we think are the largest challenges which humanity faces that can be addressed by nanotechnology -- sort of where society can get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of R&D investment. What we want to do is begin to educate people about these and to encourage activity like government funding and corporate funding.
We said, for instance, the number one challenge is meeting global energy needs with clean solutions. That's something where you can say, "OK, what does that translate into in terms of specific applications?"
Well, it's fuel cells. It's solar cells. It's hydrogen storage. It's more efficient appliances and other devices that consume energy. It might even go as far as this whole reinventing of the power grid that's being talked about by a lot of different people. All of those things are application areas that address the challenges. So it's a near-term to mid-term application focus centered around the Foresight Nanotech Challenges.
Q: Why stick to nanotech? That has a flavor of technology push to it.
It does, but the reason to stick with just nanotechnology is that's our charter. Our universe is bounded by the word nanotechnology. We made that conscious decision. That's another thing that's significant is that one of the things we decided when I came into Foresight is what we weren't doing -- and what we're not doing is anything that isn't related to nanotechnology.
Q: Just by definition?
Because we needed to focus the organization.
Q: What if the solution to some of these challenges lies somewhere else?
Solving these challenges by any means would be a fabulous thing. But our assessment is nanotech has an important part to play here. And as a nanotech-oriented organization that's the lens through which we will look at things.
Q: Tell me about the other initiatives you mentioned.
The other thing that I think is a significant cornerstone of our new direction is the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems. This is our effort to connect the dots between the near term and longer term. Our success model for this is the ITRS, the semiconductor roadmap.
The idea here is that we want to bring a similar roadmap into existence for the nanotech realm and focus on this narrow area of productive nanosystems. We certainly can't exactly duplicate what the ITRS did because they had a very constrained problem, which is, let's make some processors and memories using CMOS technology and lithography and the goal is to double every certain amount of time. They had a fairly specific technology focus whereas what we would be doing in our roadmap is a lot broader technologically.
Q: Will you make any efforts to integrate this with other roadmaps? For example, the chemical industry has a roadmap.
We've got two major bodies in this -- actually three -- that are working with us on the roadmap. One is the steering committee. That is a high-level oversight group that reviews what's going on and sets the direction. And then we've got a working group. These are people we're going to bring together and organize to actually create the bulk of the content for the roadmap.
Our plan is to bring folks who have experience with other roadmaps onto that working group. And then the third group is what we call the roadmap partners. These are industry organizations and professional societies that we think would have a significant amount to contribute to the roadmap and also reach a certain constituency.
Q: Along with all these changes there seems to be a shift from the Foresight language of molecular nanotechnology to now what's being called productive nanosystems. I'm not clear on what that is.
To a certain extent that's being defined by the groups being pulled together. Here's the way I think about it, and that is that you're going to go through several stages as you develop nanotechnology.
Right now we're pretty much at the passive nanomaterials stage. The next stage is going to be the active nanomaterials stage, or functional nanomaterials, things that actually do things at the nanoscale. This can be drug delivery. It can be a number of different things. But active materials. Another word that's been used for that is smart materials.
The next generation I see as devices. Or you might want to think of those as components. And that's at yet another level of complexity in the technology and hopefully another leap in capability. Fourth is systems, which is taking components and hooking them together into useful systems that can do all sorts of things, that might be able to make other things that are nanostructured, and that can actually go out and do things and make things out there in the world.
Q: Is the essence of what Foresight has been discussing under the rubric of "molecular nanotechnology" kind of a subset of what productive nanosystems might be?
One of the reasons why we've come up with the new nomenclature is we want to wipe the slate clean, in terms of people's legacy connotations around this. What we wanted to do was say, "OK, this has created some confusion. We want to now clarify."
And so I would definitely say that the levels of complexity and the concepts that were out there in terms of what can "molecular nanotechnology" do, that I would imagine that there would be some of those same capabilities in these eventual productive nanosystems. But I wouldn't want to say one is the subset of the other. I just want to say that there are some ideas that are related.
But one of the things that we're doing -- and this is important in terms of the change in Foresight -- in the early days, Foresight was very much driven by the ideas of one person and really, at some level, set up to promulgate the ideas of one person or a small group of people. What we've decided is that we're a much bigger tent. And that Eric Drexler and all the people who were in that first wave of people who came up with these ideas are honored and welcome as founding members of the tent, but there are a lot of other people in the tent who have different points of view about how this all might go.
Q: We have the challenges. We have the roadmap. Should we be expecting announcements of other big projects or are we now going to start seeing execution?
We are going to be executing. The third area of execution is that we're going to get very consistent as a publisher of information. We're going to be publishing a weekly news digest, a bimonthly newsletter. We're going to be doing Web casts, opportunities to learn, action alerts and other things.
So that's a third piece of execution. And then the other thing that I always put out there that dovetails with the roadmap effort is that we are in the process of reformulating our prize portfolio. We brought onboard Peter Diamandis and the X-Prize Foundation. (Diamandis heads up the foundation, whose $10 million prize led to breakthroughs in space travel.) We're beginning a process with them that will be very tightly linked with the roadmap process.
Many people don't know that we have a quarter-of-a-million-dollar incentive prize that was the first incentive prize in the nanotech field. It turns out that that prize has not been successful for various reasons. It's called the Feynman Grand Prize and it's for the first people to manufacture certain devices at the nanoscale.
Q: What was wrong with yours and right with the X-Prize?
One of the things that's an issue, I'll just point to one of them, was the current incentive prize is too far off. One of the challenges -- the sort of critical success factors of prizes -- is to formulate something that's just the right amount of distance out in the future so that it's attainable in some reasonable amount of time.
The Mize File
Scott Mize joined the Foresight Nanotech Institute as president in August 2004. Prior to joining Foresight, he co-founded AngstroVision Inc., a company focused on making a next-generation metrology tool for nanotech. He also conceived of and was the chairman of the advisory board of the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report, a global report on the near-term commercial opportunities that exist in nanotechnology (published by CMP Cientifica.)
He worked as a consultant to Technanogy, a nanomaterials company that merged with Nanotechnologies Inc. and as an adviser to software maker Accelrys and other firms. Trained as a software engineer, Mize previously worked as Apple Computer's multimedia content evangelist and as a product manager at Lotus Development Corp. (now an IBM subsidiary). He co-founded and served as chief executive of Zelos!, an early publisher of personal learning products on CD-ROM, which was acquired by Charter Communications.