Tag Archives: US Dept. of Defense

Manufacturing innovation in the US and the Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMI)

The announcement from US President Barack Obama about creating a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) resulting in 45 Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMI) seems to have been made a while back as one of the technical focus areas mentioned in the current round of RFIs (request for information) has closed. Regardless, here’s more from a Sept. 18, 2014 news item on Azonano,

The President of the United States has launched a major, new initiative focused on strengthening the innovation, performance, competitiveness, and job-creating power of U.S. manufacturing called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).

The NNMI is comprised of Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs) and the President has proposed establishing up to 45 IMIs around the country.

A Sept. ??, 2014 National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) news release, which originated the news item, describes the program and the RFIs in more detail,

The IMIs will be regionally centered public private partnerships enabling the scale-up of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes, with the goal of successful transition of existing science and technology into the marketplace for both defense and commercial applications. The purpose of the RFI is for DOD to consider input from industry and academia as part of an effort to select and scope the technology focus areas for future IMIs. The RFI originally sought information about the following technical focus areas:

  • Flexible Hybrid Electronics
  • Photonics (now closed)
  • Engineered Nanomaterials
  • Fiber and Textiles
  • Electronic Packaging and Reliability
  • Aerospace Composites

Submissions received to date relevant to the Photonics topic have been deemed sufficient and this topic area is now closed; all other areas remain open. The RFI contains detailed descriptions of the focus areas along with potential applications, market opportunities, and discussion of current and future Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs).

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office encourages interested members of the nanotechnology community to view and respond to the RFI as appropriate. [emphasis mine] The IMI institutes have the potential to provide game-changing resources and foster exciting new partnerships for the nanotechnology community.

The current closing date is 10 October 2014. Additional details can be found in the RFI and its amendments.

(I’m highlighting the nanotechnology connection for discussion later in this posting.)

You can find the official RFI for the Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation here along with this information,

The Department of Defense (DoD) wishes to consider input from Industry and Academia as part of an effort to select and scope the technology focus areas for future Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs). These IMIs will be regionally centered Public Private Partnerships enabling the scale-up of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes with the goal of successful transition of existing science and technology into the marketplace for both Defense and commercial applications. Each Institute will be led by a not-for-profit organization and focus on one technology area. The Department is requesting responses which will assist in the selection of a technology focus area from those currently under consideration, based upon evidence of national security requirement, economic benefit, technical opportunity, relevance to industry, business case for sustainability, and workforce challenge.

There is also some information about this opportunity on the US government’s Advanced Manufacturing Portal here.

This National Network for Manufacturing Innovation is a particularly interesting development in light of my Feb. 10, 2014 posting about a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report titled: “Nanomanufacturing: Emergence and Implications for U.S. Competitiveness, the Environment, and Human Health.”

Later in 2014, the NNI budget request was shrunk by $200M (mentioned in my March 31, 2014 posting) and shortly thereafter members of the nanotech community went to Washington as per my May 23, 2014 posting. Prior to hearing testimony, the representatives on the subcommittee hearing testimony were given a a 22 pp. précis (PDF; titled: NANOMANUFACTURING AND U.S. COMPETITIVENESS; Challenges and Opportunities) of the GAO report published in Feb. 2014.

I’ve already highlighted mention of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office in a news release generated by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) which features a plea to the nanotechnology community to respond to the RFIs.

Clearly, the US NNI is responding to the notion that research generated by the NNI needs to be commercialized.

Finally, the involvement of the US Department of Defense can’t be a huge surprise to anyone given that military research has contributed greatly to consumer technology. As well, it seems the Dept. of Defense might wish to further capitalize on its own research efforts.

Better night vision goggles for the military

I remember a military type, a friend who served as a Canadian peacekeeper (Infantry) in the Balkans, describing night-vision goggles and mentioning they are loud. After all, it’s imaging equipment and that requires a power source or, in this case, a source of noise. The Dec. 29, 2012 news item on Nanowerk about improved imaging for night vision goggles doesn’t mention noise but hopefully, the problem has been addressed or mitigated (assuming this technology is meant to be worn),

Through some key breakthroughs in flexible semiconductors, electrical and computer engineering Professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma has created two imaging technologies that have potential applications beyond the 21st century battlefield.

With $750,000 in support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), Ma has developed curved night-vision goggles using germanium nanomembranes.

The Dec. 28, 2012 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release, which originated the news item, describes the Air Force project and another night vision project for the US Department of Defense,

Creating night-vision goggles with a curved surface allows a wider field of view for pilots, but requires highly photosensitive materials with mechanical bendability-the silicon used in conventional image sensors doesn’t cut it.

…  Ma’s design employs flexible germanium nanomembranes: a transferrable flexible semiconductor that until now has been too challenging to use in imagers due to a high dark current, the background electrical current that flows through photosensitive materials even when they aren’t exposed to light.

“Because of their higher dark current, the image often comes up much noisier on germanium-based imagers,” says Ma. “We solved that problem.”

Ma’s dark current reduction technology has also been recently licensed to Intel.

In another imaging project, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided Ma with $750,000 in support of development of imagers for military surveillance that span multiple spectra, combining infrared and visible light into a single image.

“The reason they are interested in IR is because visible light can be blocked by clouds, dust, smoke,” says Ma. “IR can go through, so simultaneous visible and IR imaging allows them to see everything.”

Inexpensive silicon makes production of visible light imagers a simple task, but IR relies on materials incompatible with silicon.

The current approach involves a sensor for IR images and a sensor for visible light, combining the two images in post-processing, which requires greater computing power and hardware complexity. Instead, Ma will employ a heterogeneous semiconductor nanomembrane, stacking the two incompatible materials in each pixel of the new imager to layer IR and visible images on top of one another in a single image.

The result will be imagers that can seamlessly shift between IR and visible images, allowing the picture to be richer and more quickly utilized for strategic decisionmaking.

It’s impossible to tell from the description if this particular technology will be worn by foot soldiers or human military personnel but, in the event it will be worn,  it does well to remember that it will need a power source. Interestingly, the average soldier already carries a lot of weight in batteries (up to 35 pounds!) as per my May 9, 2012 posting about energy-harvesting textiles and the military.

DARPA/Google and Regina Dugan

One of my more recent (Nov. 22, 2011) postings on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) highlighted their entrepreneurial focus and the person encouraging that focus, agency director Regina Dugan. Given that she’s held the position for roughly 2.5 years, I was surprised to see that she has left to joint Google. From the Mar.13, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

Google on Monday [March 12, 2012] confirmed that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency chief Regina Dugan is taking a yet-to-be-revealed role at the Internet powerhouse.

Dugan’s Wikipedia entry has already been updated,

Regina E. Dugan was the 19th Director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She was appointed to that position on July 20, 2009. In March 2012, she left her position to take an executive role at Google. She was the first female director of DARPA.

Much of her working career (1996-2012) seems to have been spent at DARPA. I don’t think I’m going to draw too many conclusions from this move but I am intrigued especially in light of an essay about a departing Google employee, James Whitaker. From Whitaker’s March 13, 2012 posting on his JW on Tech blog,

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

He lays out the situation here,

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point.  [emphasis mine] Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

That point about YouTube really strikes home as I’ve become quite dismayed with the advertising on the videos. The consequence is that I’m starting to search for clips on Vimeo first as it doesn’t have intrusive advertising.

Getting back to Whitaker, he notes this about Google and advertising,

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

It’s interesting to contrast Whitaker’s take on the situation, which suggests that the company has lost its entrepreneurial spirit as it focuses on advertising, with the company’s latest hire, Regina Dugan who seems to have introduced entrepreneurship into DARPA’s activities.

As for the military connection (DARPA is US Dept. of Defense agency), I remain mindful that the military and the intelligence communities have an interest in gathering data but would need something more substantive than a hiring decision to draw any conclusions.

For anyone who’s interested in these types of queries, I would suggest reading a 2007 posting, Facebook, the CIA, and You on the Brainsturbator blog, for a careful unpacking of the connections (extremely tenuous) between Facebook and the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency). The blog owner and essayist, Jordan Boland, doesn’t dismiss the surveillance concern; he’s simply pointing out that it’s difficult to make an unequivocal claim while displaying a number of intriguing connections between agencies and organizations.

Nanotechnology for Defense Conference call for abstracts

The deadline for abstracts is Feb. 18, 2012 for the Nanotechnology for Defense Conference (NT4D) in Summerlin, Nevada from Aug. 6 – 10, 2012.

J. Steven Rutt in his Feb. 4, 2012 article for Cleantech & Nano notes,

Defense is one of the fundamental and perhaps the most stable pillar for nanotechnology commercialization, along with other pillars such as bio nanotechnology and energy.  The history of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) interest in nanotechnology is noted in the Foreward of Ratner and Ratner’s book, Nanotechnology and Homeland Security 2004 (written by James Murday, Office of Naval Research).  The DoD interest in nanotechnology can be “clearly identified as early as the late 1970′s when its Ultrasubmicron Electronics Research (USER) program.”  [sic]IT

I have a longstanding interest in the military and its nanotechnology research so I find this call for abstracts quite piquant, from the conference call for abstracts page,

We look forward to receiving your abstracts for the 2012 NanoTechnology for Defense Conference. Submitted abstracts must be unclassified and should be no more than 300 words long. In early March 2012, you will be contacted regarding the status of your acceptance. Final presentations will be due 9 July 2012. This event is conducted at the ITAR level and therefore presentations given at the Symposium do not need to be cleared for public release. However, presentations and papers should not contain proprietary information and may not be more restrictive than Distribution X (Distribution authorized to U.S. Government Agencies and private individuals or enterprises eligible to obtain export-controlled technical data in accordance with DoD directive 5230.5 under the provisions of Public Law 98-94). All abstracts should fall into one or more of the described topics on the previous pages.  Please note, presentation of an abstract does not waive any applicable registration fees.

Full and open abstracts are preferred, however we will accept ITAR restricted abstracts. Acceptable distribution levels include A or X ONLY.  To find more information on distribution levels, visit http://www.usasymposium.com/nano/security.htm.  Please note:  ITAR ABSTRACTS MUST BE PASSWORD PROTECTED.

ITAR restricted? Distribution A and X levels? It all seems reminiscent of tv programmes like the X-Files and Fringe.

For anyone who’s interested in making a submission (despite the resemblance to X-Files and/or Fringe), conference organizers are looking for abstracts on these topics and others (from the Rutt article),

The current call for abstracts at the 2012 NT4D Conference focus on (1) Nanotechnology Success Stories, (2) Nanotechnology for Military Coatings Applications, (3) Nanotechnology for Chem-Bio Defense and Battlefield Casualty Care Medical Applications, (4) Nanomaterials Response to Extreme Stimuli, and (5) Nanoelectronics.  However, the scope is broad as topics in the following areas will be considered: …

For anyone like me who isn’t familiar with Nevada, Summerlin is partly in Las Vegas according to the Wikipedia essay,

Summerlin is an affluent 22,500-acre (9,100 ha) master-planned community under development by The Howard Hughes Corporation in the Las Vegas metropolitan area of Nevada near the Spring Mountains and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It lies partially within the city limits of Las Vegas, Nevada, and in unincorporated Clark County. Summerlin, named for Howard Hughes’ grandmother, Jean Amelia Summerlin, ranked as the country’s best-selling master-planned community for more than a decade by Robert Charles Lesser & Co.and continues to rank among the top ten best-selling communities in the country some 19 years after development first began.

I have removed links and citation notes from the Wikipedia essay excerpt.

From the bleeding edge to the cutting edge to ubiquitous? The PaperPhone, an innovation case study in progress

This story has it all: military, patents, international competition and cooperation, sex (well, not according to the academics but I think it’s possible), and a bizarre device – the PaperPhone (last mentioned in my May 6, 2011 posting on Human-Computer Interfaces).

“If you want to know what technologies people will be using 10 years in the future, talk to the people who’ve been working on a lab project for 10 years,” said Dr. Roel Vertegaal, Director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. By the way, 10 years is roughly the length of time Vertegaal and his team have been working on a flexible/bendable phone/computer and he believes that it will be another five to 10 years before the device is available commercially.

Image from Human Media Lab press kit

As you can see in the image, the prototype device looks like a thin piece of plastic that displays a menu. In real life that black bit to the left of the image is the head of a cable with many wires connecting it to a computer. Here’s a physical description of the device copied from the paper (PaperPhone: Understanding the Use of Bend Gestures in Mobile Devices with Flexible Electronic Paper Displays) written by Byron Lahey, Audrey Girouard, Winslow Burleson and Vertegaal,

PaperPhone consists of an Arizona State University Flexible Display Center 3.7” Bloodhound flexible electrophoretic display, augmented with a layer of 5 Flexpoint 2” bidirectional bend sensors. The prototype is driven by an E Ink Broadsheet AM 300 Kit featuring a Gumstix processor. The prototype has a refresh rate of 780 ms for a typical full screen gray scale image.

An Arduino microcontroller obtains data from the Flexpoint bend sensors at a frequency of 20 Hz. Figure 2 shows the back of the display, with the bend sensor configuration mounted on a flexible printed circuit (FPC) of our own design. We built the FPC by printing its design on DuPont Pyralux flexible circuit material with a solid ink printer, then etching the result to obtain a fully functional flexible circuit substrate. PaperPhone is not fully wireless. This is because of the supporting rigid electronics that are required to drive the display. A single, thin cable bundle connects the AM300 and Arduino hardware to the display and sensors. This design maximizes the flexibility and mobility of the display, while keeping its weight to a minimum. The AM300 and Arduino are connected to a laptop running a Max 5 patch that processes sensor data, performs bend gesture recognition and sends images to the display. p. 3

It may look ungainly but it represents a significant step forward for the technology as this team (composed of researchers from Queen’s University, Arizona State University, and E Ink Corporation) appears to have produced the only working prototype in the world for a personal portable flexible device that will let you make phone calls, play music, read a book, and more by bending it. As they continue to develop the product, the device will become wireless.

The PaperPhone and the research about ‘bending’, i.e., the kinds of bending gestures people would find easiest and most intuitive to use when activating the device, were presented in Vancouver in an early session at the CHI 2011 Conference where I got a chance to speak to Dr. Vertegaal and his team.

Amongst other nuggets, I found out the US Department of Defense (not DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] oddly enough) has provided funding for the project. Military interest is focused on the device’s low energy requirements, lowlight screen, and light weight in addition to its potential ability to be folded up and carried like a piece of paper (i. e., it could mould itself to fit a number of tight spaces) as opposed to the rigid, ungiving borders of a standard mobile device. Of course, all of these factors are quite attractive to consumers too.

As is imperative these days, the ‘bends’ that activate the device have been patented and Vertegaal is in the process of developing a startup company that will bring this device and others to market. Queen’s University has an ‘industrial transfer’ office (they probably call it something else) which is assisting him with the startup.

There is international interest in the PaperPhone that is collaborative and competitive. Vertegaal’s team at Queen’s is partnered with a team at Arizona State University led by Dr. Winslow Burleson, professor in the Computer Systems Engineering and the Arts, Media, and Engineering graduate program and with Michael McCreary, Vice President Research & Development of E Ink Corporation representing an industry partner.

On the competitive side of things, the UK’s University of Cambridge and the Finnish Nokia Research Centre have been working on the Morph which as I noted in my May 6, 2011 posting still seems to be more concept than project.

Vertegaal noted that the idea of a flexible screen is not new and that North American companies have gone bankrupt trying to bring the screens to market. These days, you have to go to Taiwan for industrial production of flexible screens such as the PaperPhone’s.

One of my last questions to the team was about pornography. (In the early days of the Internet [which had its origins in military research], there were only two industries that made money online, pornography and gambling. The gambling opportunities seem pretty similar to what we already enjoy.) After an amused response, the consensus was that like gambling it’s highly unlikely a flexible phone could lend itself to anything new in the field of pornography. Personally, I’m not convinced about that one.

So there you have a case study for innovation. Work considered bleeding edge 10 years ago is now cutting edge and, in the next five to 10 years, that work will be become a consumer product. Along the way you have military investment, international collaboration and competition, failure and success, and, possibly, sex.

Canadian business triumphs again! US company acquires Cananano Technologies

As I have noted on more than one occasion, the ‘success’ model in Canadian technology-based businesses is predicated on a buy-out, i.e. develop and grow your business so you can sell it and retire. The news about Canadian Nano Technologies (Canano) fits very well into this model. From the Jan. 12, 2011 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Arkansas-based NanoMech, Inc. announced today that it has acquired Canadian Nano Technologies, LLC (Canano).

Canano (www.CanadianNano.com) provides custom engineered nanopowders designed to solve unique problems, adding value to products that span multiple industries including electronics, agriculture, solar energy, and aerospace. The company was founded to develop and commercialize applications of pure metal nanopowders. Using a proprietary gas condensation process partially based on research carried out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Canano produces a wide variety of high-quality nanoparticles. Their proprietary process is unique and offers significant improvements over other nanoparticle production/collection processes.

NanoMech is a leading designer and manufacturer of nanoparticle-based additives, coatings and coating deposition systems.

Richard Tacker, Founder and CEO of Canano said, “Our customers have seen the value that our custom-engineered nanopowders bring to their products, and as a result the demand for our materials is growing rapidly. By joining NanoMech we can take advantage of their excellent management team, nanomanufacturing expertise, and scale up our production capacity to serve existing and future customers.”

The Canadian technology certainly has some interesting applications,

The nanopowder technology applications include advance methods of improving: nutrient replacement fertilizers and environmentally safe pesticides and conductive inks for printed circuit boards, RFID’s, photovoltaic printed solar cells, solar connectors, surface coatings, new generation ballistics, RF shielding, self-cleaning surfaces, solar heaters, condensers , silicon wafers, solid rocket fuels, and primers. Other applications include textiles, nano fabrics for clothing and car seat covers, odor free materials, cosmetics, sunscreens, deodorants, lip balm, cleansing products, surface protectants, cleaning chemicals, antibacterial coatings, scratch resistant surfaces, thermal barriers, super hydrophobic, dielectrics, wound dressings, lighter, stronger sports equipment, smart materials, air purifiers, water filtration and bio-aerosols, safety, sun and high definition glasses, non-reflective and smart shielding, odor free refrigerators and washing machines, automotive parts, chip resistant paints, non-corrosives, cement, concrete, and fuel savers, and much more.

Meanwhile, the discussion about innovation in Canada continues as we try to figure out why we aren’t better at innovating as per a Jan. 12, 2011 article by John Lorinc for University Affairs. (Thanks to Rob Annan for the tip via Twitter.) Lorinc notes in his article,

In its ninth report on the state of Ontario’s competitiveness, the task force headed by Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, argues that low productivity in the country’s manufacturing heartland has led to low prosperity, revealing an “innovation gap.” Professor Martin writes that public policy is more concerned with science-driven inventions that, while very important to society, won’t necessarily lead to products and services that consumers want – and thus products and services that could improve Ontario’s innovation capabilities. [emphasis mine]

I am not sure that a focus on ‘science-driven inventions’ is the big problem. Certainly our inventions seem attractive to large foreign companies and corporations as per the Canano experience and many others. The article even points out that Apple is currently pursuing RIM, which is, for now, the largest Canadian technology company.

The perspective from William Polushin from McGill  is closer to my own,

For many years, William Polushin has taught a core international business undergraduate course at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Each year Mr. Polushin (who’s also founding director of the Desautels program for international competitiveness, trade and innovation) polls his students about their attitudes towards entrepreneurship and innovation by asking whether they see themselves as the next Bill Gates – in other words, as individuals who will come up with an innovation that could be a game-changer. Year after year, the response rate is consistent: only about 10 percent say they see themselves in this kind of role. By comparison, at a recent conference on North American competitiveness in Mexico City, he asked the students in the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves running their own businesses in the future. “Well over half put up their hands,” he says.

The results of his straw polls tell a story. Canada has not been especially successful at fostering an innovation mindset among successive generations of business grads and entrepreneurs. Mr. Polushin says, “We don’t have a strong risk orientation in our own country.” [emphasis mine] Most of his students aspire to work in large companies, even though the supply of Canadian-based multinationals continues to shrink due to consolidation. The result, he says, is that much R&D and innovation activity occurs elsewhere.

For a bit of contrast,

Although he’s based at the epicentre of Ottawa’s policy machinery, veteran Statistics Canada economist John Baldwin has a message that runs sharply counter to much of the conventional wisdom that emanates from the capital’s think tanks. “There’s an awful lot of innovation taking place,” says Dr. Baldwin, director of StatsCan’s economic analysis division. The problem is that Canadian policy doesn’t recognize it as such.

I think that’s true too and illustrates the point that discussion about innovation in Canada is complex and nuanced. I recommend reading Lorinc’s entire article.

Todd Babiuk’s article for the Edmonton Journal, Canada failing to create culture of innovation, provides an insider’s perspective from Peter Hackett,

He was, for five years, the president and CEO of a now-shuttered endowment fund called Alberta Ingenuity. The mandate of Alberta Ingenuity, devised to be independent of the provincial government, was to encourage and support innovation in science, technology and engineering. This innovation would lead to spinoff companies that would create fabulous wealth and opportunity for Albertans, attract talented people, and diversify the economy.

Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t the president and CEO of an independent organization. Alberta Ingenuity has been replaced by Alberta Innovates, and it is operated by the department of Advanced Education and Technology.

“What I take from it, in terms of lessons, is it’s thrilling to watch a group of people take a great product to the market,” said Hackett, in his current office at the University of Alberta’s National Institute for Nanotechnology, where he is a fellow. Before he arrived in Alberta, Hackett did similar work at the National Research Council in Ottawa, spinning Canadian research into businesses.

“But in 15 years of an innovation agenda, honestly,” he said, “governments have accomplished nothing.”

On a YouTube video shot at the Canadian Science Policy Centre in late 2010, Hackett criticizes the Canadian government’s unhelpful and backward interventions into business, through the tax system.

If you’re making a profit, we’re going to help you. But if you’re growing, we won’t. [emphasis mine] In the U.S., it’s completely the other way around. That’s why they have a lot of small companies that grow into big companies.”

In the same video he outlines, briefly and rather devastatingly, the problem with venture capital in Canada. “Government’s intervention into venture capital has ruined the ability for Canadian companies to grow,” he says.

… “We created a tax break for investing in venture capital,” he said, in his office. “So it was about the tax break, not this great company: Facebook, whatever you like. It’s absurd!”

Point well taken regarding the tax break for venture capital. As I recall, there were similar issues with film funding tax breaks. These were addressed and finally, real movies as opposed to ‘tax break’ movies got funded. Part of the problem with government tax programmes such as tax breaks for venture capital funding or film funding is the law of unintended (and counterproductive) consequences and the extraordinarily long time it takes to resolve them.

There was one other point in Hackett’s interview, “If you’re making a profit, we’re going to help you. But if you’re growing, we won’t,” which is well illustrated by Rob Annan’s Nov. 30, 2010 posting (on the Researcher Form blog) where he discusses this phenomenon in the context of Medicago,

Medicago is a Canadian company that produces vaccines in tobacco plants instead of using traditional egg-production techniques. This allows a much more rapid development and deployment of seasonal and pandemic vaccines. Their proprietary technology, currently in phase I and II clinical trials, was developed in Canada thanks in part to government funding …

They’ve been awarded numerous Canadian business and technology awards. They have translated these investments and successes into millions of dollars in private sector investment and a public listing on the TSX. Not bad for a company based out of Quebec City.

So what’s wrong with this obvious success story?

Medicago made the news this week because the US Department of Defense is investing $21-million to build a 90,000 sq ft state-of-the art production facility in North Carolina. The facility will be able to produce 120-million pandemic vaccine doses annually or 40-million seasonal vaccine doses annually. In a news release, the US government recognizes the company’s ability to bolster domestic vaccine supply, respond more rapidly than traditional methods, and bring “hundreds of good paying jobs” to the region.

The 90,000 sq ft facility in North Carolina will dwarf the current estimated 15,000 sq ft dedicated to production in Quebec City, and will inevitably shift the company’s focus south.

The Canadian government’s response?

According to CBC news, Health Canada remains committed to egg-based vaccines …

While it’s discouraging to read about, I like to find hope in the fact that innovation in Canada is being discussed and folks seem to be interested in finding ways to promote and nurture innovation in Canada.

Dr. Wei Lu, the memristor, and the cat brain; military surveillance takes a Star Trek: Next Generation turn with a medieval twist; archiving tweets; patents and innovation

Last week I featured the ‘memristor’ story mentioning that much of the latest excitement was set off by Dr. Wei Lu’s work at the University of Michigan (U-M). While HP Labs was the center for much of the interest, it was Dr. Lu’s work (published in Nano Letters which is available behind a paywall) that provoked the renewed interest. Thanks to this news item on Nanowerk, I’ve now found more details about Dr. Lu and his team’s work,

U-M computer engineer Wei Lu has taken a step toward developing this revolutionary type of machine that could be capable of learning and recognizing, as well as making more complex decisions and performing more tasks simultaneously than conventional computers can.

Lu previously built a “memristor,” a device that replaces a traditional transistor and acts like a biological synapse, remembering past voltages it was subjected to. Now, he has demonstrated that this memristor can connect conventional circuits and support a process that is the basis for memory and learning in biological systems.

Here’s where it gets interesting,

In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit and each computing unit is only connected to a handful of neighbors in the circuit. As a result, conventional computers execute code in a linear fashion, line by line, Lu said. They are excellent at performing relatively simple tasks with limited variables.

But a brain can perform many operations simultaneously, or in parallel. That’s how we can recognize a face in an instant, but even a supercomputer would take much, much longer and consume much more energy in doing so.

So far, Lu has connected two electronic circuits with one memristor. He has demonstrated that this system is capable of a memory and learning process called “spike timing dependent plasticity.” This type of plasticity refers to the ability of connections between neurons to become stronger based on when they are stimulated in relation to each other. Spike timing dependent plasticity is thought to be the basis for memory and learning in mammalian brains.

“We show that we can use voltage timing to gradually increase or decrease the electrical conductance in this memristor-based system. In our brains, similar changes in synapse conductance essentially give rise to long term memory,” Lu said.

Do visit Nanowerk for the full explanation provided by Dr. Lu, if you’re so inclined. In one of my earlier posts about this I speculated that this work was being funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) which is part of the US Dept. of Defense . Happily, I found this at the end of today’s news item,

Lu said an electronic analog of a cat brain would be able to think intelligently at the cat level. For example, if the task were to find the shortest route from the front door to the sofa in a house full of furniture, and the computer knows only the shape of the sofa, a conventional machine could accomplish this. But if you moved the sofa, it wouldn’t realize the adjustment and find a new path. That’s what engineers hope the cat brain computer would be capable of. The project’s major funder, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [emphasis mine], isn’t interested in sofas. But this illustrates the type of learning the machine is being designed for.

I previously mentioned the story here on April 8, 2010 and provided links that led to other aspects of the story as I and others have covered it.

Military surveillance

Named after a figure in Greek mythology, Argos Panoptes (the sentry with 100 eyes), there are two new applications being announced by researchers in a news item on Azonano,

Researchers are expanding new miniature camera technology for military and security uses so soldiers can track combatants in dark caves or urban alleys, and security officials can unobtrusively identify a subject from an iris scan.

The two new surveillance applications both build on “Panoptes,” a platform technology developed under a project led by Marc Christensen at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Department of Defense is funding development of the technology’s first two extension applications with a $1.6 million grant.

The following  image, which accompanies the article at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) website, features an individual who suggests a combination of the Geordi character in Star Trek: The Next Generation with his ‘sensing visor’ and a medieval knight in full armour wearing his helmet with the visor down.

Soldier wearing helmet with hi-res "eyes" courtesy of Southern Methodist University Research

From the article on the SMU site,

“The Panoptes technology is sufficiently mature that it can now leave our lab, and we’re finding lots of applications for it,” said ‘Marc’ Christensen [project leader], an expert in computational imaging and optical interconnections. “This new money will allow us to explore Panoptes’ use for non-cooperative iris recognition systems for Homeland Security and other defense applications. And it will allow us to enhance the camera system to make it capable of active illumination so it can travel into dark places — like caves and urban areas.”

Well, there’s nothing like some non-ccoperative retinal scanning. In fact, you won’t know that the scanning is taking place if they’re successful  with their newest research which suggests the panopticon, a concept from Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century about prison surveillance which takes place without the prisoners being aware of the surveillance (Wikipedia essay here).

Archiving tweets

The US Library of Congress has just announced that it will be saving (archiving) all the ‘tweets’ that have been sent since Twitter launched four years ago. From the news item on physorg.com,

“Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archive — ALL public tweets, ever, since March 2006!” the Washington-based library, the world’s largest, announced in a message on its Twitter account at Twitter.com/librarycongress.

“That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions,” Matt Raymond of the Library of Congress added in a blog post.

Raymond highlighted the “scholarly and research implications” of acquiring the micro-blogging service’s archive.

He said the messages being archived include the first-ever “tweet,” sent by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and the one that ran on Barack Obama’s Twitter feed when he was elected president.

Meanwhile, Google made an announcement about another twitter-related development, Google Replay, their real-time search function which will give you data about the specific tweets made on a particular date.  Dave Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog offers more information and a link to the beta version of Google Replay.

Patents and innovation

I find it interesting that countries and international organizations use the number of patents filed as one indicator for scientific progress while studies indicate that the opposite may be true. This news item on Science Daily strongly suggests that there are some significant problems with the current system. From the news item,

As single-gene tests give way to multi-gene or even whole-genome scans, exclusive patent rights could slow promising new technologies and business models for genetic testing even further, the Duke [Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy] researchers say.

The findings emerge from a series of case studies that examined genetic risk testing for 10 clinical conditions, including breast and colon cancer, cystic fibrosis and hearing loss. …

In seven of the conditions, exclusive licenses have been a source of controversy. But in no case was the holder of exclusive patent rights the first to market with a test.

“That finding suggests that while exclusive licenses have proven valuable for developing drugs and biologics that might not otherwise be developed, in the world of gene testing they are mainly a tool for clearing the field of competition [emphasis mine], and that is a sure-fire way to irritate your customers, both doctors and patients,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, director of the IGSP Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy.

This isn’t an argument against the entire patenting system but rather the use of exclusive licenses.

The memristor rises; commercialization and academic research in the US; carbon nanotubes could be made safer than we thought

In 2008, two memristor papers were published in Nature and Nature Nanotechnology, respectively. In the first (Nature, May 2008 [article still behind a paywall], a team at HP Labs claimed they had proved the existence of memristors (a fourth member of electrical engineering’s ‘Holy Trinity of the capacitor, resistor, and inductor’). In the second paper (Nature Nanotechnology, July 2008 [article still behind a paywall]) the team reported that they had achieved engineering control.

I mention this because (a) there’s some new excitement about memristors and (b) I love the story (you can read my summary of the 2008 story here on the Nanotech Mysteries wiki).

Unbeknownst to me in 2008, there was another team, located in Japan, whose work  on slime mould inspired research by a group at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego)  which confirmed theorist Leon Chua’s (he first suggested memristors existed in 1971) intuition that biological organisms used memristive systems to learn. From an article (Synapse on a Chip) by Surf daddy Orca on the HPlus magazine site,

Experiments with slime molds in 2008 by Tetsu Saisuga at Hokkaido University in Sapporo sparked additional research at the University of California, San Diego by Max Di Ventra. Di Ventra was familiar with Chua’s work and built a memristive circuit that was able to learn and predict future signals. This ability turns out to be similar to the electrical activity involved in the ebb and flow of potassium and sodium ions across cellular membranes: synapses altering their response according to the frequency and strength of signals. New Scientist reports that Di Ventra’s work confirmed Chua’s suspicions that “synapses were memristors.” “The ion channel was the missing circuit element I was looking for,” says Chua, “and it already existed in nature.”

Fast forward to 2010 and a team at the University of Michigan led by Dr. Wei Lu showing how synapses behave like memristors (published in Nano Letters, DOI: 10.1021/nl904092h [article behind paywall]). (Fromthe  HPlus site article)

Scientific American describes a US military-funded project that is trying to use the memristor “to make neural computing a reality.” DARPA’s Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics Program (SyNAPSE) is funded to create “electronic neuromorphic machine technology that is scalable to biological levels.”

I’m not sure if the research in Michigan and elsewhere is being funded by DARPA (the US Dept. of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) although it seems likely.

In the short term, scientists talk about energy savings (no need to reboot your computer when you turn it back on). In the longer term, they talk about hardware being able to learn. (Thanks to the Foresight Institute for the latest update on the memristor story and the pointer to HPlus.) Do visit the HPlus site as there are some videos of scientists talking about memristors and additional information (there’s yet another team working on research that is tangentially related).

Commercializing academic research in US

Thanks to Dave Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog who’s posted some information about a White House Request for Information (RFI) on commercializing academic research. This is of particular interest not just because of the discussion about innovation in Canada but also because the US National Nanotechnology Initiative’s report to PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, my comments about the webcast of the proceedings here). From the Pasco Phronesis posting about the NNI report,

While the report notes that the U.S. continues to have a strong nanotechnology sector and corresponding support from the government. However, as with most other economic and research sectors, the rest of the world is catching up, or spending enough to try and catch up to the United States.

According to the report, more attention needs to be paid to commercialization efforts (a concern not unique to nanotechnology).

I don’t know how long the White House’s RFI has been under development but it was made public at the end of March 2010 just weeks after the latest series of reports to PCAST. As for the RFI itself, from the Pasco Phronesis posting about it,

The RFI questions are organized around two basic concerns:

  • Seeking ideas for supporting the commercialization and diffusion of university research. This would include best practices, useful models, metrics (with evidence of their success), and suggested changes in federal policy and/or research funding. In addition, the RFI is interested in how commercialization ecosystems can be developed where none exist.
  • Collecting data on private proof of concept centers (POCCs). These entities seek to help get research over the so-called “Valley of Death” between demonstrable research idea and final commercial product. The RFI is looking for similar kinds of information as for commercialization in general: best practices, metrics, underlying conditions that facilitate such centers.

I find the news of this RFI a little surprising since I had the impression that commercialization of academic research in the US is far more advanced than it is here in Canada. Mind you, that impression is based on a conversation I had with a researcher a year ago who commented that his mentor at a US university rolled out more than 1 start up company every year. As I understand it researchers in Canada may start up one or two companies in their career but never a series of them.

Carbon nanotubes, is exposure ok?

There’s some new research which suggests that carbon nanotubes can be broken down by an enzyme. From the news item on Nanowerk,

A team of Swedish and American scientists has shown for the first time that carbon nanotubes can be broken down by an enzyme – myeloperoxidase (MPO) – found in white blood cells. Their discoveries are presented in Nature Nanotechnology (“Carbon nanotubes degraded by neutrophil myeloperoxidase induce less pulmonary inflammation”) and contradict what was previously believed, that carbon nanotubes are not broken down in the body or in nature. The scientists hope that this new understanding of how MPO converts carbon nanotubes into water and carbon dioxide can be of significance to medicine.

“Previous studies have shown that carbon nanotubes could be used for introducing drugs or other substances into human cells,” says Bengt Fadeel, associate professor at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet. “The problem has been not knowing how to control the breakdown of the nanotubes, which can caused unwanted toxicity and tissue damage. Our study now shows how they can be broken down biologically into harmless components.”

I believe they tested single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs) only as the person who wrote the news release seems unaware that mutil-walled CNTs also exist. In any event, this could be very exciting if this research holds up under more testing.

US Dept. of Defense and children; applied science and Haiti

As I cover scientific research and the military from time to time and have long been interested in children and science, this news item from Cliff Kuang at Fast Company titled, Is DARPA’s Kids’ Initiative Funding Tomorrow’s Mathletes or “Terminator 5: Recess?”, caught my eye. For anyone not familiar with DARPA, it stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and it is part of the US Dept. of Defense. From the news item,

Anytime you hear news of government sponsored cyborg beetles or shape-shifting robotic blobs, it’s almost certain that Darpa is behind it. As the Pentagon’s skunk research programs, their sole aim is to fund research so far out and cutting edge that it isn’t yet on private industry’s radar. And now they’ve aimed their sights on a squishier but no less intractable problem: Getting more kids interested in technology careers.

Darpa’s RFP is barely written in English, but it contains some pretty sharp-eyed critiques of the current system. Darpa notes that even though there are plenty of sciency programs out there such as space camp, geared at middle-schoolers. But there’s not much else. The challenge is to create a continuum of activities that engage students all along the path from middle-school to college.

Kuang also mentions that the Time-Warner corporation is dedicating $100M US to a science mentorship program called, Connect a Million Minds.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, much of the consumer technology (e.g. television and the internet) we are familiar with was developed from military research. I was too outraged (youth and idealism) to finish reading the book  but as I recall, Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy makes much the same point in its opening chapters. In contrast to Kuang’s assertion (“… research so far out and cutting edge that it isn’t yet on private industry’s radar,” Bruce Mau’s 2004 design show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Massive Change, suggested that the process is being reversed and that the cutting edge technology is being developed for consumer use first and then making its way into military research labs.

I find both the timing for the DARPA and Time-Warner initiatives to be interesting in light of the Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 (released last week) where an alarm abut the state of science and technology research and innovation in the US  has been sounded. The indicators were previously mentioned (by me) here.

In all the talk about science and technology and their importance (real and/or imagined) for economic welfare, it can be easy to forget that there are other reasons to encourage it. This morning I saw a news item on physorg.com about the science and technology aspect (in this case, software-related) of the relief efforts for Haiti. From the news item,

Tim Schwartz, a 28-year-old artist and programmer in San Diego, feared that with an array of , crucial information about Haitian quake victims would “go everywhere on the Internet and it would be very hard to actually find people – and get back to their loved ones,” he said. So Schwartz quickly e-mailed “all the developers I’d ever worked with.”

In a few hours, he and 10 others had built http://www.haitianquake.com , an online lost-and-found to help Haitians in and out of the country locate missing relatives.

The database, which anyone can update, was online less than 24 hours after the quake struck, with more than 6,000 entries because Schwartz and his colleagues wrote an “scraper” that gathered data from a Red Cross site.

The speed in getting the site up was incredible then later, other people joined the party.

The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and others launched similar efforts. And two days later, had a similar tool running, PersonFinder, that the State Department promoted on its own Web site and Twitter. PersonFinder grew out of missing-persons technology developed after ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

This is where the story gets good.

Christopher Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advocated online for consolidating all such tools into the Google version so the information wouldn’t be stuck in competing projects. He considers PersonFinder, which can be embedded in any Web site and as of Tuesday had more than 32,000 records, a triumph because it “greatly increases the chances that Haitians in Haiti and abroad will be able to find each other.”

Schwartz agreed and folded his database into PersonFinder, which he thinks will become “THE application for missing people for this disaster and all disasters in the future.”

Yup, there’s more than one reason to encourage science and technology research and bravo to Schwartz for agreeing to consolidate his tool with Google’s PersonFinder.