It's taken the rest of the world more than 20 years to realize what Scott Rickert has been saying all along: Nanotechnology holds the future of plastics and other materials.
Rickert co-founded Nanofilm Ltd. - a maker of polymeric films that use nanotechnology - in Valley View, Ohio, in 1985. At the time, Rickert was a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Starting a firm ``scared the heck out of me, but it showed me how to create value,'' Rickert said April 24 at the Ohio Nanotechnology Summit 2007 in Akron. The event was sponsored by the Center for Multifunctional Polymer Nanomaterials and Devices, a research center in Columbus, Ohio.
Nanofilm now employs 85 and makes film products for the optical, automotive, marine, electronics and household markets. Most of the firm's products are based on polyolefins, but epoxy, acrylic and polyurethane resins are used as well. Rickert now shares ownership with more than a dozen partners in Nanofilm, which has annual sales of between $10 million and $20 million.
Rickert said the nanotech market is turning the corner from research and development into commercial reality.
``Private investments are starting to pay off,'' he said. ``People are making money in nanotech now. Most nano products are based on materials that have been around for a long time and are known to be safe, so it shouldn't affect anyone's commercial decision.''
And Ohio has become a hub of plastics activity for nanotechnology, which can custom-tailor and improve material performance at the molecular level. In addition to Nanofilm, Five Star Technologies Ltd. of Cleveland and Ecology Coatings Inc. of Akron are making plastic-based nanoproducts. Compounders PolyOne Corp. of Avon Lake and Ferro Corp. of Cleveland are using the technology as well.
Several Ohio schools - including the University of Akron, Ohio University, Case Western Reserve and Ohio State University - have active nanotech programs.
``Ohio is a mutual fund of nanotechnology,'' Rickert said. ``People in Ohio know how to make money by making products people want. We almost have a complete supply chain within the state. The universities serve as incubators and programs like Third Frontier [a state business-support program] are great business generators. You need a lot of businesses to start, because very few make it to the middle level.''
Rickert urged students and professors with business ideas to start their own full-time nanotech firms, even though he admits that advice won't make him popular with college officials.
``Now is the time,'' he said. ``Nanofilm wouldn't have started if I hadn't left Case. You have to make the commitment if you want investors to make a commitment to you.
``The next five years will really be amazing in nanotechnology,'' Rickert added. ``And Nanofilm isn't alone. You can't name a chemical company that's not doing this right now. They're buying technology and making their own technology. Companies are making consumer products based on nanotech, like golf balls and clubs and bathroom cleaners.
``If you're an injection molder or extruder, you should be using nanotech in product development. If you don't know how, there are universities or companies that will work with you.''
Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati has product development workshops devoted to nanotech, according to Rickert, and although midsize companies with $50 million to $100 million in sales have been slow to adapt, they're now starting to go ``from browsing to investing'' in the technology.
But investment, he added, is one area where Ohio's nanotech field is falling short.
``For a long time, people didn't think you could make money in nanotech, but you could make money over time,'' he said. ``That's the type of company that venture capital doesn't invest in.''
With a federal funding bill up for renewal, Rickert said the U.S. government needs to change its focus on nano from research into commercial development.
``For every dollar that goes into R&D, a dollar needs to go into small companies so they have a chance,'' he said.
Rickert's own firm has diversified its commercial base. Optical lens applications once made up almost all of its output, but now lenses hold a 60 percent share of the business.
``People say that manufacturing is dying and that we're becoming a service economy,'' he said. ``But manufacturing is just being reinvented, just like agriculture was. It's being reinvented, and nanotech is doing that.''