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Posted: November 11, 2007
University of Missouri wants to become leader in global nanotechnology
(Nanowerk News) Nanotechnology may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but in mid-Missouri, the field is quickly becoming recognized as a promising component of the area’s technology-driven economic development strategy.
“It is an exciting time,” said Jim Thompson, dean of the University of Missouri’s School of Engineering. “It’s like in the 1960s with lasers and integrated circuits. Now we are at the beginning point with nanotechnology.”
MU’s race to develop nanotechnology is taking place not only in the School of Engineering but also in medicine, radiology, physics and other fields. Each academic area has its own assets to offer, and the key to MU’s progress seems to lie in their ability to collaborate.
“In nanotechnology, collaboration is the key,” Thompson said. “This is by far the best university in the country in terms of creating a collaborative environment.”
He said part of the reason MU is prioritizing nanotechnology is that, for now, there are fewer competitors and MU is positioned to take a leadership role.
“We can’t compete with Silicon Valley, for example, to become a major player in semiconductor development,” he said. “But we have a real opportunity in nanotechnology.”
Commercializing nanotechnology advances is a frequent topic of discussion among administrators and scientists in the field.
“It is my hope that we will develop nanotechnologies that can be commercialized and turned into start-up companies here in Missouri,” Thompson said.
One example can be found, seemingly hidden away, in an off-campus facility on Columbia’s Business Loop. There Kattesh Katti and Raghuraman Kannan, both on the faculty of MU’s Department of Radiology and Physics, have founded two nanotechnology start-ups, Greennano Company and Nanoparticle Biochem., Inc. Either man has the credentials and experience to go anywhere in the world; both chose the University of Missouri because, they said, it offers the right combination of collaborative environment, technical facilities and leadership.
“The combination is not available anywhere [else] in the world,” Kannan said.
Kannan and Katti are exploring ways to use nanoparticles—particles measured in terms of one billionth of a meter (it would take 100,000 nanoparticles to span the width of a human hair)—to diagnose and treat diseases such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. Their goal is to develop products that can be manufactured here in Missouri and marketed worldwide.
The two men are not alone at MU, working in an environment that spans several academic departments and representing a fast-growing field. Much of MU’s nanotechnology effort resides at the Center for Micro/Nano Systems and Nanotechnology, run by Shubhra Gangopadhyay, recruited from Texas Tech University in 2003 to start the program. The center housed in the School of Engineering closely collaborates with other departments.
“I was hired to build the center with the goal of bringing visibility to the college,” Gangopadhyay said.
Gangopadhyay said she has built a team of students and faculty who have gone beyond just working as an academic department. “We didn’t want to just talk about it, so we set up a company,” she said. “Part of our goal is to further economic development in Missouri. This is important to my students.”
NEMS/MEMS Works, LLC is the MU-originated startup Gangopadhyay formed with other members of the MU community, including graduate student Steve Apperson. Gangopadhyay says the company is six months away from creating a prototype of its first device, an “advanced drug delivery system” designed to destroy tumors, kidney stones and ulcers and to treat cancer and HIV. She expects her team to be ready to start production a year from now but only if the scientists have the facilities they need.
Gangopadhyay and Apperson said that mid-Missouri lacks the high-tech facilities to produce their device and others. Among other things, for development and production they need “clean-rooms”—rooms that have essentially no dust or particles that would interfere with their work. Today, they have one small, 500-square-foot clean room and another “partially clean” room nowhere near the thousands of square feet they will eventually need. Adding the facilities they need will cost millions of dollars.
“Programs like ours almost always have line-item priority in the state budget,” Gangopadhyay said. “The state has done a lot for us, but we need money to do what we must do.”
Fred Hawthorne, an internationally recognized nanotechnology pioneer recruited to MU in 2006 from the University of California-Los Angeles, said that the opportunity is too good to pass up. He said that, with the right resources, MU could be the leading nanotechnology center in the world
“I came here because the university has everything I need to do the work I want to do,” he said. “My work is in Boron-neutron capture therapy. I created it and we’ll be the center of that in the world. If you do the numbers on that, it gets into the billions of dollars in a few years. This is a very unique campus. If some of the things we are working on pay off, they will be the basis of new industries.”