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Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is a Michigan-based freelance writer who specializes in science, business and innovation. He has been covering developments in nanotechnology for more than a decade.
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U.S. Workers Unprepared for the Nanotech Revolution

Friday, May 11th, 2012 - by Howard Lovy

Today, I continue my series of interviews with nanotechnology leaders for the NanoBusiness Commercialization Association. Vincent Caprio, the trade group’s president, asked me to speak to some of the most influential leaders in nanotech policy, commercialization and research, and I’m more than happy to speak to these brilliant, creative people. You can read my previous interview with Andrew Maynard here, where we talk about real risk vs. perceived risk.

In today’s interview, I speak to Dean Hart, chief commercial Officer, and Tom Warwick, general manager, for a Chicago-based nanotech company called NanoInk. As I write in my piece, they are “breaking down at least two barriers that stand in the way of widespread nanotech commercialization – getting the tools of the future nanotech trade in the hands of companies rather than researchers, and training a new generation of workers in how to use them.”

Hart, however, is warning that the United States risks losing the international nano race if we do not invest more in training the nanotech workers of the future. Research investment is great, but it will not mean much if there are not enough workers with the skills to use the tools of the trade. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a competition for worker training that the United States could end up losing if it does not reorganize its priorities.

“We continue to invest in research, which is extremely important, whereas the rest of the world takes that research and then they start investing in the workforce that’s going to be able to implement it,” Hart said.

In Suzhou, China, for example, they’re launching what they are calling the Nano-Polis project that will train 30,000 workers in nanotechnology. It is a commitment to taking research and turning it into workforce development that Hart does not see happening so far in the United States.

The solution, he said, is for commercial companies to approach their local undergraduate institutions and tell them that they need their help in building the new nanotech-enabled workforce. Companies cannot pay too many $90,000-a-year Ph.D.s, but they can hire educated, nano-savvy employees at $50,000 a year. Do that, and “the whole business model has changed,” he said.

It’s about getting the technology to the attention of the masses, training them, opening up their minds to what is available, he said. “We have an opportunity for leadership, but if we don’t act quickly we’re going to lose it.”

Read the whole article here.

Image courtesy shutterstock and Andrea Danti

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Nanotech: Balancing real risk, political risk and the risk of hype

Monday, February 20th, 2012 - by Howard Lovy

Vincent Caprio, executive director of the NanoBusiness Commercialization Association, asked me to contribute to his series of interviews with influential voices in the science and business of nanotech. So, I interviewed Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, who has been studying risks associated with nanotech for more than a decade. He had some interesting things to say about assessing risk based on science, rather than political pressure, the need to alter one’s views as more becomes known about nanotech and the risk of overhyping a technology. Here’s an excerpt:

When Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, read the text of a recent lawsuit by consumer advocates against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which claims the FDA is failing to regulate nanomaterials in products, one phrase jumped out at him. The groups used the words “fundamentally unique properties” when referring to nanoscale ingredients.

The phrase, in fact, comes directly from marketing material of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. So, in one sense, the nanotech industry is a victim of its own public relations, Maynard believes. A phrase used to promote nanotech commercialization is being thrown back at nanotech advocates by those who would use the same logic to demand strict regulations.

“There is an assumption that you can have everything your own way,” Maynard says. “You can say something was unique and important and world-changing, selling the hype, and yet not really understanding what the long-term consequences of that hype are.”

This is what Maynard does for a living. He tries to reach beyond hype and beyond gloom to assess and communicate the real risks associated with emerging technologies, including nanotechnology. But he approaches these assessments from a starting point that seems increasingly difficult to achieve in these polarized political times – one based on scientific principles rather than political agenda.

Read the whole thing here.

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My Son and I Write A Review of Richard Dawkins’ Children’s Book

Monday, January 9th, 2012 - by Howard Lovy

My 7-year-old son, Max, and I co-wrote a review of Richard Dawkins’ children’s book, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” for Chemical & Engineering News. It was a wonderful collaboration with my son, who is already much brighter than I ever was at that age. I’m very proud of him. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, we get it. These myths/stories seem ridiculous, and Dawkins takes the tone he always takes when describing religious stories—a condescending one. Yet to somebody who was raised in religion but also understands science, the mocking tone also mocks culture. It is a difficult thing to describe to those who did not grow up with religion. I can devote my career to writing about science, yet also feel strangely defensive about the stories of my childhood. In his previous book, “The God Delusion,” Dawkins compared this reaction to our evolutionary need to obey our parents. I do not know if this is true, since I have not obeyed my parents in decades. Nevertheless, I continue to feel possessive about stories I know to be myths simply because they are an important part of the way my parents raised me.

What Dawkins does not see is that the myths of our ancestors are snapshots in time. They show our cultural evolution and are a tie to our earlier, more primitive selves. They do not need to be taken literally, but rather respected as cultural history.

The problem I have with Dawkins’ assumptions is that I know these stories are not the hindrance to scientific thought that he presumes. But Dawkins repeats a mistake from previous books about the clash of religion and science by assuming that anybody other than the most fervent minority actually takes these stories literally. So, in this book, he considers it part of his crusade to set kids straight and point out the obvious, that these are just myths and stories. Children can tell the difference.

Max is very much into “Star Wars” mythology, for example. So I asked him why it is that he’s so immersed in this mythical universe yet has such little patience for the mythology listed in Dawkins’ book? Because nobody claims “Star Wars” is true, he said. And, of course, he is correct. More here

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Amazing Technology Is Not Enough; You Also Need An Amazing CEO

Thursday, December 8th, 2011 - by Howard Lovy

I snapped this picture of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in January 2011 at the North American International Auto Show.

I have an article today in MEMS Investor Journal about Ardesta, the venture capital company launched 12 years ago by Rick Snyder, who went on to become Michigan’s current Republican governor. Ardesta invested in nanotechnology and other “small tech” companies, including MEMS (microelectromechanical systems). They’re not quite nanotech, but amazing all the same. It’s the technology that makes your car airbag go off at precisely the right moment and is responsible for the amazing tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers responsible for your smart phone and gaming systems reacting to your own body movements.

Here’s a passage from my article that I think can be applied to nanotech companies, and any new technology as it moves from lab to marketplace.

It’s not enough to have great technology. If you don’t choose the right application in the right market, it will fail. Right after 9/11, it was thought that the defense and homeland security markets were going to be bigger than they actually turned out to be, so Handylab wasted a few years seeking out defense customers. “It was a bad move,” Rizik says.

When CEO Jeff Williams was hired in 2005, he forced the company to go back to the drawing board and develop the product for instant diagnostics. “When Jeff made that decision, we doubled down our investment,” Rizik says. This key decision by Ardesta, hiring the right CEO, paid off. “The wrong CEO could kill a good company and the right CEO can make even an OK company a success,” he says.

That is the way it is with any new technology. Even the most-brilliant scientists with the greatest of inventions may not be able to sell it successfully without the right entrepreneur to shepherd it into the marketplace. More here

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is responsible for my initial interest in nanotech when he hired me for the magazine he launched back in 2001 that covered small tech. If you’re interested in more background on how that happened, I wrote a story on that for Xconomy back in 2010, when Snyder got the GOP nomination. More here

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News in a Nanosecond

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 - by Howard Lovy

The day’s nanotech news in nanosized bites:

Electric-Car Batteries a No-Go, But Don’t Blame the Nano: A123 Systems, which makes lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, is laying off 125 people at two Detroit-area plants. The company received some pretty decent tax incentives to get the plants online. But, it turns out, electric-car manufacturer Fisker Automotive ran into some production troubles and left a whole bunch of A123 Systems batteries with nowhere to go. What does this have to do with nanotech? As I wrote in a previous Crain’s Detroit Business article, it’s the “nano inside” that gives A123′s li-ion batteries their charge.

Hi-Ho Nanosilver! The EPA has given a conditional four-year go-ahead for nanosilver-based products. Nanotech critics are frightened because they fear it might build up in water and soil despite a lack of evidence that any such buildup is harmful. It’s just kinda a feeling that environmental activists have that it may cause problems. But silver has been used for centuries to fight germs. The only difference now is that nano prefix. More in the New Haven Independent

Capturing Quantum Craziness: An Aussie lab searches for the dividing line between the larger world we know and the Bizzaro world down below. “It’s all about trying to understand where quantum mechanics collapses into classical physics.” More in Cosmos magazine

Happy Birthday, Nature Nanotechnology: The publication turned 5 this year, which means it’s ready for kindergarten. In celebration, they’re giving away treats — five nanotech articles to share with the class for free. Enjoy

NanoPower: Is there anything carbon nanotubes cannot do? Light those little things on fire and the “combustion wave” can become a power source for things like “smart dust,” tiny defibrillators or cancer fighters. More on IEEE Spectrum

Making Nanotubes Biocompatible: Questions over biocompatibility have prevented carbon nanotubes from reaching their potential as drug delivery vehicles or scaffolds for tissue engineering. Now, researchers at Stanford University have figured out a way to make carbon nanotubes safer to use inside the body. Details on Nanotechweb.org

NanoSchooling: New York state prepares its educators to teach the nanotech revolution. Your News Now reports

Eric Drexler is Back: The controversial father of advanced nanotechnology is working on a new project: “exploratory engineering.” It’s a hybrid between physics, engineering and the unpredictable nature of human behavior. Sounds like Drexler is out of the wilderness and leading a new charge. Story and video courtesy of IEEE Spectrum’s Dexter Johnson

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News in a Nanosecond

Thursday, December 1st, 2011 - by Howard Lovy

The day’s nanotech news in nanosized bites:

Kardashian Deficit Disorder:  If only nanotech news had some curves, would the public know more about risks? Turns out, journalists who used to do a great deal of nanotech reporting in the mid-2000s are no longer working. Yep. I could have told you that. The New Haven Independent reports

Speaking of Nanotech Risks … Anti-nanotech activitsts like to talk endlessly about “uncertainty” regarding nanoparticles in sunscreen. Well, a new study makes it a bit more certain that no harm is actually done. “Nanoparticles did not penetrate beneath the outermost layer of cells …” This undercuts one of the main objections to nanotech in consumer products. But, unfortunately, facts rarely interfere with the agendas of those who peddle fear. More at Eurekalert

Rise of the Nanomachines: I, for one, will welcome our new nanobot overlords … if we ever get around to building them. News release on Nanotechnology Now

Watching the (nano)tube: Researchers hit the “print” button to create low-cost carbon-nanotube display screens. More here

Speaking of Nanotubes, they Suck … They can suck up CO2. A portable nanotube carbon-dioxide sucker could take care of high CO2 levels in the atmosphere, especially in areas such as big cities, where trees are rare. More in The Engineer

Nano May Make Battery Recycling Attractive: Research into recovering nanoparticles from old batteries “will appeal to environmental nanotechnologists who should see this as an opportunity to turn recycling of electronic waste into an economically beneficial proposition for industry. Michael Berger at Nanowerk reports

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FDA: Regulate Nanotech First, Learn what it is Later?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 - by Howard Lovy

The FDA, in cautionary mode, has come up with a meaningless nanotech threshold of 1,000 nanometers. The genius who decided on that number in a draft guidance on nanomaterial regulation has the biotech industry scratching its collective head over this new math.

As I wrote in my first nanotech column for PJMedia, nano is not any one technology at all. It is an enabling technology, the next step in the evolution of many different disciplines. The problem is that there is no definite dividing line between the “old” way of doing things and the nanoscale world.

There is a general agreement that nanotechnology begins at the level of 100 nanometers or less, but that has never been universally accepted and the number, itself, does not mean much. It always looked good on press releases, though, since it’s a nice round number and a good way of introducing the idea that different, counterintuitive, spooky, magical things happen to material at that scale.

That 100-nanometer limit is how nanotech businesses can promote the idea that they’re doing something futuristic-sounding and a way for nanotech detractors to find a dividing line beyond which “here be dragons” and push for regulation.

But, like the quantum world, itself, simply the act of observing it — or, in the case of the FDA, regulating it — has an impact on its development. And the FDA has multiplied that limit by 10 and came up with the 1,000 nanometer threshold.

Natalie Morrison of in-PharmaTechnologist.com reports that the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is worried that this new definition of nanotech would “mean pointless extra regulation.”

There are many materials in existing pharmaceuticals that already are smaller than this threshold, such as liposomes, emulsions and suspensions, that are already proven to be safe and may contain nanoscale particles, but are not the new, spooky, scary, magical nanomaterials that has regulators around the world worried.

It’s surprising, because the FDA has been studying nanomaterials for a long time and I’d have thought that they would at least know what it is they want to regulate, before they begin regulations. Not a good start to government oversight of nanobiotech.

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