Nanotech's big booster

Bernard Marcus sees enormous potential in the science of the small.

By Stephanie N. Mehta, assistant managing editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, free-market absolutist, aquarium builder and philanthropist is way into nanotechnology these days.

It isn't that the 79-year-old, home-improvement billionaire has suddenly become an expert in the science of manipulating matter at the most granular of levels. (The "nano" in nanotech refers to one-billionth of a meter.) But as a major donor to Georgia Tech's Nanotechnology Research Center - the university officially is opening the doors of the new Marcus Nanotechnology Building later this month - Marcus has started looking for opportunities to share his thoughts on the subject.

"To me, this whole area is just fascinating," Marcus declared during a recent visit with Fortune. "It will change medicine, high-technology, consumer products, everything."

And indeed, the Marcus building at Georgia Tech is taking a somewhat novel, cross-disciplinary approach to nanotech research. Biotechnology students will work in clean rooms adjacent to engineers looking for information technology breakthroughs, forcing experts in the two seemingly disparate sciences to share ideas and even collaborate on research.

Nanotech is a bit hard to define, and few reliable statistics show, say, the number of nanotech-based products or inventions populate the marketplace today. Georgia Tech describes it as the "science of the small." In the future, nanotech enthusiasts believe, nanotechnology will lead to the creation of aspirin-sized television cameras that a patient might swallow so that a doctor could examine the inside of his body. Today nanotech already is used in a number of applications, perhaps the most famous being wrinkle and stain-resistant pants in which special nanofibers combine with traditional cotton fibers to create new kinds of fabrics.

Nanotechnology can even be found in Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500) stores: Tool maker DeWalt, a unit of Black & Decker (BDK, Fortune 500), sells a line of gadgets that uses a nanotech battery that purports to be faster and lighter than conventional rechargeable batteries.

One promising new area for nanotech involves improving the performance of graphene - thin sheets of carbon atoms - that researchers are using to create tiny, tiny transistors. James D. Meindl, founding director of the Nanotechnology Research Center, suggests that graphene-based components could be the natural successor to silicon, the building block of the information technology revolution.

Meindl acknowledges that plenty of good nanotech research is taking place at corporations hoping to exploit the science - what company wouldn't want to be the driving force behind the next silicon - he strongly believes academic institutions have an important role to play in nanotech.

The center at Georgia Tech, he notes, is first and foremost a teaching facility that provides students with learning opportunities and skills to get jobs or start businesses in the field. The universities also hope to do far-reaching, long-term research that corporate R&D labs won't undertake because the return on such projects isn't necessarily clear. "Companies just don't look ahead the way universities do," Meindl says.

As for Marcus, who continues to serve as an informal adviser to Home Depot executives and serves as chairman of the Georgia Aquarium board, his motives for funding a new building at Georgia Tech are less academic, but just as lofty. He declares: "I would like to see the state of Georgia become the Silicon Valley of this new world." To top of page

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