Preface – NanoInnovation: What Every Manager Needs to Know


In 2000, I was giving a series of presentations to industry and academic groups on radical innovations that have the potential to reshape the future, and one of these innovations was nanotechnology. At the time, there was a lot of hype around “nano,” but I had the sense that most people didn't really understand what was really going on in the field. So I began asking my audiences, “Who can name one product that uses nanotechnology?”

To my amazement, most people couldn't name a single product. This happened year after year. In the fourth year, one hand went up and someone said, “carbon nanotubes.” At the time, I knew there were already more than a thousand products that used nanotechnology. Obviously, the business community needed to know more about nanoinnovation. At the same time, many of my colleagues in business were expressing frustration over the media hype and constant flow of “breakthrough” announcements that were causing a lot of confusion and misinformation. Finally, I decided to write a book that tells what's “really happening” in nanoinnovation – the book you're reading now.

I started by interviewing nano-insiders in business, government, science, and academia. Thanks to contacts shared by friends like Michael Terlaak and others and by using LinkedIn and other networking resources, I was able to interview more than 150 nano-insiders. Over time, I got to know many of the most prominent nano pioneers. I invited them to provide updates on their research at an annual event I hosted at the Wharton School called the Emerging Technologies Update Day.

Virtually everyone I contacted was eager to participate and to help convey the “real story” of nano. In addition, people in many countries worked behind the scenes to answer questions, provide details, and secure permission for nanoscale images. Some laboratory technicians took nanoscale photos especially for this book. Others provided me with background summaries of nanotech projects and details that are not yet public.

One of my most important challenges was to make this a dynamic publication. When I began this project, I noticed that a lot of nanotechnology books offered snapshots of innovations that quickly grew out-of-date, so I tried to take a slightly different approach. My goals were to make this a starting point, not an endpoint or snapshot. So I tried to design this as a dynamic living document that you the reader can use as a basis to continue your own investigations. Most of the nanoinnovations you'll learn about here will continue to evolve over time, and you can easily track their progress on the Internet and in science and business media.

Another goal of this book is to give credit to some truly impressive pioneers, and tell their stories in their own words where possible – because many of the most significant breakthroughs are the result of extraordinary personal effort. It's fascinating to learn, for example, how Ned Seeman gleaned a breakthrough idea from a woodcut on the wall of a pub while enjoying a beer, or how Tony Atala redesigned inkjet printers to “print” human organs. I also invited business entrepreneurs to discuss how they developed their ventures – including failures as well as successes.

This is not just a book about what's happening in nanotechnology – this is also a book about what you can make happen. You don't have to be a scientist to be a nanoinnovator, or to champion nanotechnology. I know this, because early in my career I was fortunate to play a role in developing and launching the world's first home computer (the Commodore VIC-20). I was not an engineer. I went to college in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and studied literature and journalism. After military service as a US Army officer, I earned an MBA from UCLA, fell in love with home computers, and played a lead role in developing and launching the first home computers at Commodore. My love affair with emerging technologies helped me to become a pioneer in home computing and kept me involved in innovation throughout my career, including 18 years at the Wharton School as Managing Director of the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program, the Mack Center for Technological Innovation, and the Mack Institute for Innovation Management. As my own story confirms, there are many paths that allow you to get involved in innovation.

Most of the nanotech pioneers you'll meet in this book did not start out specializing in nanotechnology. They come from physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, business, environmental technology, and other fields. Most are self-taught. For many researchers, nanotechnology was so new and different that it forced them to think in new and different ways. Their stories are fascinating.

One of the things we learn from their stories is that anyone can be a nanoinnovation champion. If you're in a company, you can support and cultivate an innovation culture that includes the manipulation of atoms and molecules in the R&D toolkit. If you're in marketing, think about how nanoinnovations will compete with existing technologies and change your industry. If you're managing a business, think about how nanotechnology will affect your organization, your industry, and your competitive markets. If you're a parent, encourage your children to study science and technology – especially nanotechnology. If you're a teacher, push to integrate nanotechnology in your school curriculum. Learn about nanotechnology and scan the horizon for emerging technologies and applications. If you're in a country that is out of the nanoinnovation mainstream, find ways to educate students and seed the nanoinnovation process. Focus on how nanotechnology can solve problems in your country, especially problems for which there are no other solutions.

As you read this book, keep thinking about how nanoinnovation will change your world. Will a new material made from carbon nanotubes or graphene replace plastic, steel, or aluminum? Will nanosensors create a “sensor revolution” where almost anything can be detected? Will nanomedicine cure diseases that have been stubbornly resistant to cures for decades or centuries? Will we be growing our own hearts and livers to replace failing, damaged, or even aging organs? Will we wrap buildings in nanoskins to regulate environmental conditions? Will we change the structure of materials by mimicking innovations created by Nature, such as creating a new type of dry adhesive by imitating the footpads of a lizard, or engineering a material based on the nanostructure of a butterfly's wing?

The answer is, these wondrous things are already happening. The revolution in nanotechnology is changing our lives, wherever we live on the planet. Many of these nanoinnovations are happening out of sight and are hidden from view in research laboratories. Some innovations are discussed only in specialized science, engineering, or medical journals. This book throws light on hidden corners of science and technology, just as nanoimaging systems reveal nanoscale objects that are smaller than visible light waves. It also gives you a portfolio of ideas and themes that belong on your radar screen, if you want to keep current on what will be happening in the coming decades, in nanotechnology and other areas.

These are exciting times to be involved in science, technology, and business. There have never been so many innovations poised to change our lives, from robots that walk and fly to genetic solutions that will save and prolong our lives. Everything is changing, from how we use mobile social media to communicate, to how we process and package food, to how we use energy. Most of these innovations are visible, but the science and technology that drives them is invisible, and that's why we need to know more about nanoinnovation.

I invite you to join me and millions of others who are helping to drive progress through nanoinnovation. Together, we can make the future happen faster.