Tech Nexus Opens in Silicon Valley

A new discipline is emerging at the intersection of biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology, and some of the new field’s practitioners say the time has come to create a facility dedicated to bio-info-nano research and training.

Until recently, training opportunities were limited to university departments in each of the new discipline’s three core fields. But earlier this year, the Bio-Info-Nano Research and Development Institute (BIN-RDI) opened its doors in California’s Silicon Valley. The institute aims to become a regional hub for the bio-info-nano convergence community by bringing together interested biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers. “Our goal is to be a nexus for multiple disciplines and technologies,” says David Lackner, the director responsible for coordinating corporate R&D partnerships at BIN-RDI. Furthermore, the new organization is expected to provide some unique training opportunities.

At the crossroads of three disciplines

Research at this nexus encompasses disparate objectives such as creating fibers from bacteria, making nanotube transistors, and manufacturing computer circuits from individual molecules. It’s all about leveraging knowledge that already exists in the respective fields to make connections with others, says Babak Parviz, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. Parviz, who is not involved in the bio-info-nano institute, says that although it is still rare to see all three fields in the same laboratory, it does make sense. “We need to bring together tools that have been traditionally housed in areas like computer and electrical engineering to deal with complex systems [and] to better handle and understand data,” he says.

These partnerships are essential, Parviz believes, as researchers recognize that the barriers between these disciplines are artificial. “You can essentially be working on the same type problem but [be] housed in different departments like electrical engineering, chemistry, or physics,” he says. “The traditional boundaries between the disciplines are rapidly disappearing, and we have to realize that these boundaries will evolve and change over time.”

A collaborative effort of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), NASA, and corporate partners including Hewlett-Packard, BIN-RDI got started when the idea won the endorsement of several area corporations including Sun Microsystems, Intel, and IBM. This got the attention of the state’s two senators, who secured $2 million in seed money from the federal government.

For now, the operation is run from the UCSC campus and a few labs in a small wing of a building at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. But the institute is raising money to build a $41 million, 7400-square-meter facility scheduled to open in 2009.

BIN-RDI is modeling its architecture on university campuses where private companies have set up shop and are able to work with faculty members and students. In similar fashion, BIN-RDI provides a central “commons” area for research and development where intellectual property is shared among participating universities, companies, and government agencies. “It’s an area where people work together in agreement without encroaching on each other’s proprietary activities,” Lackner says.

Whereas the institute’s intellectual commons area provides important opportunities for free and open collaboration, corporate researchers will also be able to take their ideas into “T-space,” a separate space adjoining the commons area where proprietary research can be conducted in private. According to Michael Isaacson, the science director at BIN-RDI, the architecture is designed to accommodate multisector partnerships for companies–start-up and established–and to promote the rapid development of new discoveries.

Opportunities for business, training, and employment

One company that sees value in this type of research architecture is Solexant in Sunnyvale, California, which is already setting up shop at BIN-RDI. This small start-up is using nanotechnology to develop novel materials for low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells for commercial and residential rooftops. “The common, nonproprietary technology development area and private space is very intriguing for us,” says Damoder Reddy, Solexant’s CEO. “By having this kind of arrangement, we are able to access the facilities that would not otherwise be available, and [it] also gives us the potential to interface with other researchers.”

“The clear advantage for start-ups like this is that they can get access to state-of-the-art equipment in our shared facilities where they can readily demonstrate their proof of principle,” says Isaacson. “They can then go to their investors to get money for their own instruments.”

Solexant currently has just four employees, but it’s set to hire about a dozen Ph.D. researchers in the next year to be stationed at BIN-RDI. The first round of hiring will take place this fall. “We are looking for chemists to synthesize materials, physicists who really understand the charge-transfer mechanisms in devices, and engineers who can come up with low-cost manufacturing,” Reddy says.

William Dunbar, a professor of computer engineering at UCSC, is excited about the institute and the potential it holds for faculty members, postdocs, and students on his campus. Dunbar plans to take his bioengineering work on nanopore devices, currently hosted by UCSC, to the institute, where his research team will work alongside NASA scientists and industry partners. “A facility like this, where so many different types of scientists and researchers are working together, will open up new avenues for collaborations that otherwise would never happen,” says Dunbar. “Young researchers can have a chance to be exposed to cutting-edge research and get to rub shoulders with industry and government scientists.”

Lackner expects to have a fellowship program in place by the end of this year, providing about half a dozen positions for graduate students and postdocs in chemistry and bioengineering by year’s end. In addition, announcements are expected for 25 to 35 jobs over the next 2 years, mostly for laboratory chemists and bioengineers. Opportunities should really ramp up, bringing in dozens of researchers and students, when construction of the new facility is complete in 2010.

Isaacson believes BIN-RDI can offer a unique multisector training ground for graduate students who may not know yet where they want to go with their careers. “They’ll have a unique opportunity to get involved in both large and small companies working under one roof, which is not possible in other places,” he says. “I think a lot of young researchers want to figure out if they want an academic career or a commercial career. I think they’ll see both of them and then figure out what they would really like to do.” Some individuals, he speculates, will be snapped up by one of the companies sharing the facilities.

“In the end, we are trying to create an atmosphere where we get intellectual collisions that hopefully not only produce good marketable ideas but inspires the next generation of researchers,” Isaacson says.

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