Like the intrepid surgeons submarining through a human body in the movie Fantastic Voyage, American Dr Robert Mehalso is fascinated with the power of small. He was probing the infinite depths of micro and nanotechnology back when it was still considered science fiction. Today, Mehalso travels the world explaining to researchers, politicians and corporate leaders how the ‘little sciences’ will transform society. Paul D. Ryan put this commercialisation guru under the microscope to find out what this all means for Australia.
You were one of the pioneers of micro and nanotechnology. I heard a story that there was a time when only science fiction writers could comprehend or were interested in what you were saying. Is this still true?
After I had developed a philosophy of micro and nanotechnology – over 30 years ago now – there really wasn’t anyone to speak to about it. Most people couldn’t conceive of thinking on that scale. But science fiction writers had an incredible amount of interest. They were some brilliant people. They wrote some fantastic articles.
After 25 or 30 years, it really started to come true. And in the last five years or so, the interest has grown exponentially. All of a sudden, nanotechnology is the foundation of everything, but it took forever for everybody to start walking in the same direction.
What is the difference between micro and nanotechnology?
It’s an issue of scale, but it’s really a continuum. A nanometre is technically 10-9 metre. A micron is 10-6 metre. The human hair, as a reference, is between 70 and 100 microns.
You can make devices/parts/products in the micron scale by what we call subtractive processes. You start with a chunk of something and you whittle it down by an advanced machining process. However, in nanotechnology, you’re down to the scale of an atom. You can’t go cutting atoms in half. So you build things by putting atoms together to grow the structures.
You can neither create nor destroy an atom. When a tree falls down and dies or you burn it, all those atoms are still going to be in the universe. They will just come back and form another tree, or something. How that happens, how nature does that assembly very efficiently, is what we’re trying to learn in the science of nanotechnology – to grow structures in exactly the shapes and sizes that are useful for mankind, with the same efficiency as nature. We certainly don’t understand how to do all of that yet. But we’re on the road to developing very cost effective and efficient devices and products that have the potential to produce literally no pollution. We’ll be able to make foods instead of having to grow them. All of those needs and wants of mankind have the potential to be solved by nanotechnology.
Of course, it will also create some interesting social problems. Anytime you have these kinds of dramatic changes, there are always ethical issues. People build belief systems on what is happening today. Trying to change that is almost impossible.
We’ve all heard about the nanobots that will swim through our blood and make running repairs to our bodies. What are a few little known uses for nanotechnology? What will be commonplace in 20 or 30 years?
Nanotechnology will create things beyond our imagination today. We’re already seeing work on ‘smart’ molecules that swim through the bloodstream and target cancer cells. I expect to see that become common place in the next 20 years.
I expect that food and medicine will converge, if that is allowed to happen politically. Nanotechnology will allow foods to be personalised. Our body chemistries are very different but the food we eat is generic. Through nanotechnology we can tailor food to meet your very specific nutritional, metabolic and therapeutic needs. It’s going to revolutionise health – and agriculture – and it will happen in the next generation.
You grew up in a rural area. How does someone with that background become an authority on micro and nanotechnology?
I’ve always been a fairly innovative person and I think part of that comes from being born and raised in a rural area. In all the companies that I’ve started I tried to hire people who come from those sorts of environments. They are always more creative. They figure out how to do things. They don’t seem to be stuck in a paradigm and they have an exceptional work ethic.
My parents had no formal education and it never really occurred to me that I would go to college. One of my high school teachers found me a scholarship to university. I went to the Pennsylvania State University, which offered one of the few ceramics science programs. A lot of people back home thought it was strange to get a scholarship for making pottery! Of course, ceramics is basically nanoscience. I studied ceramics and materials. In my first job I used this to develop several nanascale processes enabling the commercialisation of the CD ROM.
From what you know and what you’ve seen on this recent trip, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Australian innovation?
Australia has a very strong research ethic. I look at Australian research in terms of its profit potential. There is a significant amount of research in the universities. The country spends a lot of money on research for its size and some of the research is truly world class. You have to have that foundation. If you don’t, what are you going to work from?
The next step – securing intellectual property and commercialising that technology – is where the universities – and almost the whole culture – are a bit stagnant, compared to the US. In the US, we spin out companies right and left. That just doesn’t happen here. Many of the professors don’t even bother dealing with the intellectual property. if you don’t do that you’re not going to get anywhere. You have no asset to build anything around. The culture is not very entrepreneurial. There’s almost a defeatist attitude where it’s seen as easier to licence the technology out than to set up a company. Licensing doesn’t build the regional economy. The government pays for most of this research. All of these tax dollars are frittered off somewhere else.
Our lamentable brain drain.
Yes. You just pass the dollars through and help somebody else. It’s crazy.
So much of micro and nanotechnology is know-how. In all the companies I’ve spun out of universities, the students have come with that technology. That always works best. That’s why you see your leading researchers leaving the country after you’ve developed their expertise. The whole dynamic of how you develop that research commercialisation pathway is very important. I don’t think Australia is doing a very good job of it.
Given that the growth of micro and nanotechnology is inevitable, are we going to see a clash between the culture of traditional manufacturing in Australia and what is required to deliver these new technologies?
Certainly, the kinds of traditional manufacturing performed in Australia are not capable of delivering the very precise and technical production that nanotechnology demands. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a role for traditional manufacturing.
To make such devices useful, they have to be connected from the nano/micro scale to the macro scale we live in. At some point the conventional manufacturing can take over and supply that part of the chain.
The point is that these kinds of micro/nano-devices will replace many conventional devices. It’s hard to grow your business when the whole industry is being reduced. Those who are very good and can make the micro/nano connections will survive. The others won’t.
Whole new industries will emerge and they will be far larger and more productive than any we have known. The companies, nations and regions that recognise what is happening and make the appropriate investments will thrive. Those that don’t will no longer be leaders. This kind of opportunity comes along about once every 50 years. The last one was the semi-conductor revolution in the 1940s. Some countries never accepted that. The UK missed a whole 50 years of economic development. Now they are building the infrastructure to deal with the commercialisation of these new micro/nano technologies. It is something governments have to invest in. It’s an infrastructure that has a lot of pieces to it.
How do you get people interested in this?
You don’t just grab the guy who’s been working in a machine shop for the last 30 years and make him a nanotech guy. It’s a whole new mindset, a new culture. We have to start educating kids in secondary schools about this new world. Engineering courses in universities have to be reinvented. Here in Australia, you train a lot of scientists. Scientists do not design products or develop manufacturing processes. No engineering schools teach design at the micro/nano scale. That has to be dealt with if micro/nano products are going to be developed. It is going to take 10-15 years to fill that pipeline.
You co-founded Ardesta, the first micro/nanosystems venture fund. What roll do you see Australia’s VC community playing in the commercialisation of micro/nanotechnology?
Things aren’t quite ready for the VC community. It’s not to that point where they can see a commercial exit strategy. The infrastructure doesn’t exist yet. It’s going to be very risky for them to make investments at this stage.
Funding will certainly need to come from the public sector. There is a significant gap in Australia between where the university research leaves off and where VC and other types of private finance begin. That’s covered very nicely in the US. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program is a phenomenal initiative that gives businesses a chance to get going. Companies at varying stages of maturity are stack-ranked and awarded funding according to their commercial potential. You don’t have to pay anything back or match funding. It can at least get you to the VC stage. You need something like that here.
What do you look forward to? Are you enjoying this ‘fantastic voyage’?
Until quite recently, I was sure that I would live my whole life without seeing the large-scale commercialisation of micro/nano technologies into powerful new kinds of products and applications. Now it’s all happening at an amazing rate. It’s going to have a profound impact on our lives and on every company, requiring new approaches to manufacturing. It’s very exciting.