Philip Boudjouk imagines minute electronic chips called nanosensors almost everywhere: floating in a can of soup, sprayed onto a wall, woven into a soldier's shirt, even coursing through a patient's bloodstream.
But for the moment his concerns are a lot more pedestrian. On top of the work stack of papers on his desk, written in the dense languages of law and science, is a document awaiting his approval. The intellectual property agreement spells out how North Dakota State University and its partners would share in the profits of a new technology whose product - the nanochip - is tinier than a fleck of pepper.
NDSU's entry into the tiny world of nanotechnology, the science of building electronic circuits and devices from a single atom or molecule, was announced in August when a $1.4 million contract was awarded by the Department of Defense. The initiative took on added urgency with the recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. "September 11 looks like it's changed some things," says Boudjouk, the university's vice president for research, creative activities and technology transfer. "It looks like it's placed some new needs." NDSU was awarded the contract, in partnership with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Alien Technology Corp.; Northrop Grumman Corp. and Superconducting Technologies Inc.
The project will inaugurate a center for nanoelectronics and nanomaterials technology at NDSU and will involve collaboration from specialists in fields as diverse as chemistry, polymers and coatings, engineering and computer science. Although the initial contract is with the Department of Defense, many of the technologies that will be developed at the center also will have non-military applications, Boudjouk says. A top priority will be to find commercial uses - ideally, to be exploited by companies in Fargo-Moorhead and the surrounding region. In fact, NDSU has pledged that at least one private company will be "spun off" and located on the campus' Research and Technology Park within the next 30 to 40 months. During the next several years, the initiative could generate up to $100 million in research funding for the university.
"THIS IS A QUANTUM LEAP FOR US," Boudjouk says. "And with that will come a lot of changes and adjustments." Among other things, it will involve hiring scientists and technologists with new areas of expertise, who in turn will work with contractors and companies previously available only to Big Ten research institutions, he says. "This is a brand new set of relationships" available to students. "It's a window of the world that's much more open than it was before." Boudjouk envisions a technology corridor sprouting up along Interstate 94 between Fargo-Moorhead and the Twin Cities. "It's a brand new technology coming to the area - in fact, to the whole region," he says.
In order to be competitive, the university must be able to match the center's skills and knowledge with the needs of the marketplace. When research administrators see the need for specialized talent, they must be able to go out and get it. That will broaden the area's intellectual capital, which should, in turn, help to lure future companies as a critical mass emerges. Boudjouk envisions Fargo-Moorhead becoming a smaller version of Research Triangle Park near Raleigh-Durham, N.C., or the high-technology industries that have spun off from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "You don't have to match to scale to have success," he says.
Michael Chambers and John Ballantyne, co-founders of Aldevron, a Fargo biotechnology company, agree that Fargo-Moorhead can become a high-technology center, with the laboratory bench developing products and processes for the manufacturing plant. Ballantyne, Aldevron's chief scientific officer, says hi-tech entrepreneurs should keep an eye out for services needed by university and commercial laboratories, which routinely "out-source" what they can't or don't want to do themselves. "There's a niche out there," Ballantyne says.
"It happened in Madison, Wis. It could easily happen in Fargo-Moorhead." Aldevron, for instance, makes custom plasmid DNA and ships its orders to labs around the world.
NDSU's center for nanotechnology and microelectronics will complement existing research programs at NDSU, where earlier alliances with private industry include Phoenix International, the first tenant of the Research and Technology Park. "This is cross-cutting technology," Boudjouk says. "There are very few fields this will not impact." The university has started hiring key staff, and a delegation of faculty traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with representatives of Alien Technologies and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. NDSU will have to be nimble, however, to keep up with the rapidly changing hi-tech marketplace. "It's a rocky ride in Silicon Valley," Boudjouk says. "It's not going to be any smoother here. But we're in the mix. Our challenge is to stay on that pony."