Wednesday night I went to see a presentation by Zyvex, which bills itself as the first molecular nanotechnology company. This outfit is actually aiming toward building a molecular assembler, which would build objects by precisely placing atoms. This would be a revolution in just about everything. The hype for that has gone so overboard that some folks now reject it out of hand. I think it'll work but not as well as some of the bright-eyed college kids think. Which is good for me--if it's hard to do they'll pay well for engineers to do it, and this fighter plane gig has an expiration date. So I wanted to see what Zyvex is doing so I can tell when it might be worth trying to get a job with them or another nano-company.
I missed the prelimary schmooze-fest because I hadn't allowed for construction on the drive. The 75-635 interchange is ripped up worse than when we went through it for ConDFW. But I had a few minutes to spare before the lecture so I had a chance to hit the freebie table before it was stripped bare. Now I have brochures for "focused ion microscopy nanomanipulators".
The founder, Jim Von Ehr, talked first. He made a bundle as a software entrepeneur, wanted to become a VC and invest in nanotech companies, but he couldn't find one so he started his own. I should be so lucky as to have such problems . . . He's also paying for UT-Dallas' nanotech research center and lobbying the government to support more R&D. His approach was to find some smart people and turn them loose. "A word about physicists--I gave him an unlimited budget and he exceeded it." Various people tried to convince him to move the company out to California. His response was "The annoying people in California are a lot more annoying than the annoying people in Texas."
His current project is pushing for a big nanotech R&D project focused on energy independence, specifically at eliminating our need to import oil from the Mideast. "If we succeed we'll end up defunding some of these countries that hate our guts and want to destroy our way of life, and that to me is the exciting part." I agree, but it's a HELL of a hard problem. Harder than Apollo. But a solution would make the world a much better place. He's made progress getting support for it--he and Tom (Zyvex president) briefed the idea to Dubya on Monday. So there's some people taking them seriously. He's also working on a paper about it, which I'll be reading closely.
Von Ehr has an interesting approach to engineering, he puts a lot of weight on aesthetics. He's a big collector of MC Escher drawings (largest private collection?) and talked about including artists in development teams. That way solar arrays would look like beautiful trees instead of ugly boxes. "A tree is my perfect nanotech device" -- drop down a seed, get high-quality structural materials when you come back. He definitely is keeping his eye on the long-term goal of having the technology to build objects to a precise atomic definition. This came up again in the Q&A when Tom was describing how potential deals were decided on and Von Ehr jumped in to point out that one prerequisite was whether that deal would keep them headed toward the goal. A much longer-term view than I've seen in businessmen, while still being more practical than a lot of the Foresight.org enthusiasts I've met.
Tom Cellucci spoke next. He was brought in a year or two ago to turn Zyvex from a research institute to a business (not their exact words). He was a bit shocked to find people going around with job titles such as "Futurist". So he started hitting all these PhDs with the question "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" Now all research has to have a product and customer identified. He seems to be focusing on selling picks and shovels to the gold rushers rather than trying to pan for gold himself. Or it may just be that he found a lot of tools invented in-house and that was the quickest item to throw on the market to get some revenue.
Cellucci's definitely focused on making sales. He's even running all their employees (typically physics PhDs I think) through a "charm school" so they can talk to customers and generate leads. It's working, they're staking out a leadership position in the field. A lot of their products may get spun off into other companies--he spoke of Zyvex being a "mothership."
He did talk to the goal of the molecular assembler--he said it'd be delivered in 2012. That's an agressive target but I won't bet against them. His other goal was his promise to Bush in Monday's meeting: "Don't worry, sir, we're creating jobs." Dubya's answer was "I hope so, Tommy." Me, too. I'd like one of them. Don't think I want to commute to Richardson, though.
Overall I'm a lot more impressed with Zyvex than I had been. They're much more together than other start-ups I've dealt with (okay, not hard) and are very aggressively pushing the technology forward. If the field has lots of companies like that it's going to boom, and I want to be part of that.