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Posted: April 30, 2008
Feds seek help applying nanotechnology to defense
(Nanowerk News) Federal agencies and large defense contractors are looking for small businesses with good ideas and the technical expertise to pull them off.
The goal is to solve homeland security problems and other issues ranging from defense to public health and infrastructure safety, participants learned earlier this month at the Arizona Nanotechnology Cluster Symposium.
The third annual symposium attracted more than 350 businesspeople and academics for a day to the campus of Scottsdale Community College. All had an interest in nanotechnology, the scientific field focusing on materials and devices as small as atoms and molecules.
"We've got all kinds of challenges, and we also have all kinds of opportunities," Brad Buswell, deputy undersecretary for science and technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the group. "We don't know where the next good ideas are coming from, but we want to harvest them for the protection of the country."
The Department of Homeland Security has divided its science and technology portfolio into three levels, Buswell said.
About half of its spending goes for "transition" projects, or applied science that closes gaps between existing technologies. Higher-risk, higher-payoff projects fall into the "innovation" area, such as prototypes of devices that try to solve what the transition projects can't. DHS also allocates funds for basic research, such as that done at universities and national laboratories.
Some of the department's investments have come in nanotechnology, Buswell said. The technology is being applied to next-generation X-rays and to ways to neutralize chemicals and detect liquid explosives. Nanoparticles are even being tested in high-performance concrete to make infrastructure such as dams less vulnerable, he said.
The agency solicits new ideas twice a year through its Small Business Innovation Research program. In its most recent round, projects included one that seeks to prove that a person's pupils dilate when he or she intends to deceive others, and another to develop miniature sensors to detect chemical, biological or explosive materials nearby.
The first, Buswell said, might help tell whether the anxious person racing through the airport has nefarious intentions or is merely late for a plane.
The second might result in sensors small enough to fit into Americans' ubiquitous cellphones and give authorities an early warning of chemical or biological attacks.
Millions of dollars in research grants are available to small firms through SBIR and follow-on Small Business Technology Transfer programs at DHS and other federal agencies. The Phase 1 grants run up to $100,000, while Phase 2 grants top out at $750,000.
But there are some tricks to winning them, panelists said.
Raytheon Co., whose Tucson division makes missiles, is helping defense agencies define their needs under the program, said John Waszczak, director of advanced technology and SBIR/STTR. It therefore pays to partner with a big company that is looking for small firms' technology to fill gaps, he advised.
"They're very anxious to see it get into our products," Waszczak said. "And we're looking for technologies to provide discriminators and give us a competitive edge."
John Lombardi, whose Ventana Research Corp. in Tucson develops new materials and compounds, praises the SBIR program as an alternative to seeking venture capital.
"It gets you out of the garage and into a real research endeavor," he said.
But Grant Anderson of Paragon Space Development Corp. in Tucson cautioned that simply getting the funding should not be a small company's goal. Gaps between grant cycles are common, and the topics the government is interested in are rarely exact matches for what a company does, he said. He advised looking at SBIRs as a long-term process of taking something from prototype to commercialization, and getting to know the people within agencies so they ask for your company's technologies.
Ray Friesenhahn of Montana State University's TechLink Center also advocated planning for commercialization. His organization scouts small businesses for new technologies and works with Defense Department labs to evaluate and ultimately license them.
The center has started working with Arizona businesses that may be innovative but lack the experience or connections of working with the Defense Department.
"This involves a lot of partnerships for proving you can get to market," he said.