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Western Pa. has big goals in small gadgets

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By Rick Stouffer
Friday, Sept. 8, 2006

The Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center has the pedigree to make this region the center of the very small.

The combination of its four founder companies' 480 years of collective corporate expertise in bringing products to market and the research capabilities of the region's universities gives Western Pennsylvania profound advantages in moving nanotechnology-related ideas to sales, attendees at a Thursday morning briefing were told.

"We're looking to leverage the strengths of large companies, their product commercialization expertise, with the ideas of small companies, entrepreneurs, researchers," said Alan Brown, executive director and lone employee of the 8-month-old center.

Brown, whose office is Downtown, served as moderator for a panel discussion at the Sheraton Station Square hotel on the South Side.

Panelists included Michael Simko, technical manager-coated products at U.S. Steel; Daniel Rardon, manager, advanced technologies, PPG Industries Inc.; Robert Kumpf, vice president, future business, Bayer MaterialScience LLC; and Patrick Stewart, managing director and president, the Idea Foundry, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to move ideas from research to real businesses.

Nanotechnology is the science of building devices from single atoms and molecules. Investment in nanotechnology research is growing at the national and state level. The multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative was funded with more than $1.2 billion in President Bush's fiscal 2007 budget. Pennsylvania has allocated more than $63 million to nanotechnology-related programs.

The technology hasn't yet generated significant numbers of employees in the region, but in Pittsburgh, it is having a dollars-and-cents impact at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Pitt's nanoscale fabrication and characterization facility opens Sept. 29, while Carnegie Mellon within a year will construct a 180,000-square-foot nanotechnology research center above a surface parking lot near the Carnegie Museum.

CMU received a $4 million state grant for its center, where 40 or so faculty researchers are expected to work.

Universities are hoping to tap into more and more of the National Nanotechnology Initiative's funding.

Partnerships such as those espoused by the center are vitally important to old-line manufacturers such as those represented on yesterday's panel.

"Fifty percent of our innovation comes from partnerships," said PPG's Rardon.

Rardon used as an example Transition lenses, plastic lenses that automatically darken depending on brightness, a partnership between PPG and France's Essilor International.

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