Making Change: Small Technology with a Big Impact

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See Also: Nano-Tech in Northeast Ohio [Web Exclusive]

Nanotechnology is small stuff. Really small. In fact, it involves particles so miniscule that it's hard for the average mortal to comprehend just how tiny we're talking. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter... but that doesn't really clarify things. Alan Olson, director of technology in the polymer additives division of Ferro Corporation, puts it in perspective.

Alan Olson: In fact, they're so small that if I put them in a piece of transparent plastic, you wouldn't see them because they don't scatter light. They're smaller than waves of light.

Yet these tiny particles are capable of changing the world. Nano technology can improve the effectiveness of drugs, make plastics incredibly hard or prevent spilled pasta sauce from staining your pants. Ferro Corporation - which develops materials, pharmaceuticals and chemicals for other companies' products - has hired eight people over the past few years to work solely on nanotech research and development. Olson says nanotechnology's potential is dramatic; Ferro was able to increase the production rate of one client's plastic pipes by 400% by introducing nanoparticles into the process.

Alan Olson: And when you look at a 400% production rate, that's four times. That's a once-in-a-lifetime event where people will work years and years and years just to make a four percent production rate increase.

That potential is the impetus behind a whole week of nanotechnology conferences currently underway in Cleveland.

Shuvo Roy, a biomedical engineer at the Cleveland Clinic is one of the organizers of the conference on nanotechnology and medicine. Roy says the conference provides nanotech researchers and medical doctors a forum to learn about the potential link between the two fields.

Shuvo Roy: Now, it's interesting because these two groups generally do not speak with each other because most clinical people do not understand nano-technology and most people who do nano-technology research do not really understand clinical needs.

Roy says despite the plethora of researchers and businesses dabbling in nanotechnology, Northeast Ohio doesn't have a reputation for being on the nano-tech cutting edge - not yet anyway. But, he says, the region is famous for something else.

Shuvo Roy: They do think of Cleveland when they think of biomedical research. We found out that a lot of places that register on the nano-tech map register because they've branded themselves as such. One of the thoughts that have come from these discussions we have had over the past several months is: shouldn't Cleveland be doing some of its own branding.

Cleveland as the biomedical nanotech center of the world? It's possible. There's already evidence of nano's potential for medical advances. Roy's own work involves developing a membrane that can mimic the function of a kidney, which could eliminate the need for dialysis. Professor Pam Davis at Case Western's School of Medicine is steps away from FDA approval for a way to cure Cystic Fibrosis by injecting nano-particles into the very center of a cell.

Pam Davis: So we compact DNA down to a very, very tiny volume and we deliver it to the cells. And it turns out that if we can get the smallest diameter less than 27 nanometers, we can access the nucleus and it can be expressed.

In other words, by injecting the nano-particles into the cell, the drug corrects the failure of the defective gene that causes Cystic Fibrosis. It's pretty cool stuff, but even cooler is what Davis' research could do for the economy. Several years ago, Davis started a company called Copernicus. She says Copernicus has taken her lab work and is developing a commercial product that will be ready for use as early as 2006. Once the new drug is on the market, Davis says, there's potential for the eight-person company to add staff, which in turn has a ripple effect

Pam Davis: They say for every new job you create in the scientific sector you create nearly three jobs in the service. We figure it's probably 25 jobs have been created by that company.

Mark Brandt is managing partner of the Maple Fund, a venture capital fund that focuses on emerging technologies. He thinks that nano-tech's potential for job creation is huge. Brandt estimates that the need for researchers alone could create more than 1,000 jobs within the next five years

Mark Brandt: Those jobs will not come at one company. Those will come spread out over many companies. There will also be raw startups. I know of three startups in the germination phase in greater Cleveland that all have a nanotech base, and they could all end up hiring 20 to 30 people over the next five years.

Brandt says Northeast Ohio's strength in medical research, manufacturing and materials could place the region in the forefront of the upcoming nano-boom.

Nano week kicked off with a conference on the medical applications of nanotech. There's also a conference on applying nano-formulation to drug delivery, and there's a nano-business idea competition to wrap the week up. According to Mark Brand, nano-week is just the beginning of Northeast Ohio's Nano-Future.

In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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