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Wisconsin places high in nanotech venture capital, average in innovation

Small Times editor discusses nanotech trends at conference

MADISON – Speaking at the Bionanotechnology conference last week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a man with a long view of the science and industry behind making really small stuff said Wisconsin is bursting with venture capital – but lackluster in innovation.

Steve Crosby, editor of the nanotechnology magazine Small Times, has good reason to know: the magazine has worked with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to create a directory of nanotechology-related institutions in the country.

The survey found 775 companies active in nanotech in one way or another, the bulk in research and development. The breakdown looked like this: 344 research and development or manufacturing firms, 81 equipment-supply companies (a strong point for Wisconsin, Crosby said), 117 financial firms, 104 service providers and 129 industry or governmental organizations.

When he put up charts comparing prime indicators of industry activity between states, Wisconsin ranked fourth in the nation for the amount of venture capital spent. But for innovation, the state comes in around the middle of the pack. Admittedly, that's by a subjective measure, but the groan from the audience sounded not quite surprised.
And nano-scale biotechnology is a difficult enough field to work in as it is. “[There's] a lengthy approval process,” Crosby said. “You have to get FDA approval.”

For now, he said, venture capitalists are actively looking for new deals but watching the industry closely for any signs of instability. “Everyone's kind of doing their homework right now, sitting on the sidelines, waiting for some reason to move ahead,” he said. “And we all expect that to be the success or failure of NanoSys.”

NanoSys, a company working on nano-scale semiconductors for a wide variety of industries, filed initial papers this April for public stock offering. It could serve as a test for just how ready the market is for nanotechnology.

As for Wisconsin's apparent lag in innovation, Crosby said it was a regional issue: Madison seems to be the place for nanotech in the state, eclipsing even Milwaukee, where Crosby didn't find much activity at all.

Madison-based nanotechnology businesses whose executives spoke at the Bionanotechnology conference alongside professors and researchers were Platypus Technologies, a maker of nano-scale slide coatings; Virent, which is developing a new type of hydrogen engine; and SonoPlot, a startup founded by UW-Madison students around a process for binding tiny drops of sample chemicals on slides.

Jason Stitt is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at

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