NanoBCA was fortunate to engage in a conversation with Dr. Michael A. Meador, the recently appointed Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (“NNCO”) on February 10, 2015.
Dr. Meador, who is technically on loan from NASA to NNCO for this assignment, has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Michigan State University where he began his career thinking about matter at the molecular scale. While at NASA, Dr. Meador’s efforts included development of “game-changing” technologies from the TRL 4 to TRL 6 levels with a focus on specific technologies such as carbon nanotube based structural composites, nano-based sensors for chemical and biotech detection, among others.
The following excerpt, from the NNCO website, outlines Dr. Meador’s impressive credentials and background with regard to nanotechnology.
Dr. Meador, chair of NASA’s Nanotechnology Roadmap Team, was instrumental in developing the NASA-wide Nanotechnology Project, and has been responsible for project planning and advocacy, overseeing technical progress, developing external partnerships to advance and transfer technology, coordinating with other nanotechnology related activities within NASA, and interacting with program and senior agency management. He has also played a key role in representing NASA in the NNI’s interagency activities, including co-chairing its Nanomanufacturing, Industry Liaison, and Innovation Working Group.
During his long career at NASA, Dr. Meador has held a series of positions with increasing responsibility, including over twenty years as Chief of the Polymers Branch of the Materials Division at NASA Glenn Research Center, where he expanded the research portfolio of the branch from research in high-temperature stable polymers and composites for aircraft engines to include work in battery electrolytes, fuel cell membranes, and nonlinear optical and sensor materials. He also initiated the first nanotechnology program at NASA Glenn.
Dr. Meador has been recognized as the NASA Glenn Small Disadvantaged Business Program Technical Advocate of the Year and NASA Small Business Program Technical Personnel of the Year. He has also received the NASA Equal Opportunity Employment Medal for his work to increase the involvement of faculty and students from minority serving institutions in NASA materials research, and last month was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal for leading NASA's Nanotechnology R&D activities and representing the agency as a proactive member of the NNI.
How long have you been a devotee of the science of nanotechnology?
Dating back to my graduate studies, I have long been aware of the great potential of working with matter at the molecular level. I carried this interest with me to NASA where, as Chief of the Polymers Branch at the Glenn Research Center, I launched one of the first research efforts with NASA focused on the development of nanomaterials technologies. Around 1999 or so, NASA started a long-term relationship with Dr. Richard Smalley of Rice University to focus on scaling up his HiPCO process to produce single wall carbon nanotubes so that we could have a sufficient quantity to evaluate as an additive for polymers. We were fortunate to be a part of that activity. The scale up approach developed under this activity led to Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. So, I guess you can say that I have been involved with the science of nanotechnology for over 30 years.
From a career perspective, what led you to become the Director at NNCO?
Over the course of my career, I have been involved in all aspects of nanotech research and development at a variety of levels within NASA from managing activities in my branch to more recently managing a NASA-wide project in nanotechnology. For the past four years I also served as NASA’s principal representative to the NSET, which gave me a broader perspective on nanotech R&D at the Federal government level. It seemed like a very natural progression to aspire to a position like this at NNCO where I could give back, in a leadership role, and utilize my unique career experience with regards to nanotechnology. Personally, it is very exciting for me to be in a position to help push the NNI forward, especially now that it is at a crossroads in that it is coming out of a research and development focused effort to a more defined commercialization effort.
The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act was signed into law on December 3, 2003. What do you see as the major successes of this Act and what needs to be done going forward?
If not for National Nanotechnology Initiative (“NNI”), which preceded and was then reauthorized by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, certain industries would not have been created, or at a minimum, would have been created at a much later date. That alone is a very significant accomplishment of the NNI.
For instance, the quantum dot industry would not be where it is today if not for the NNI. As you know, Sony announced a new TV recently at the Consumer Electronics Show that will incorporate quantum dots produced by QD Vision, Inc. to enhance picture quality. QD Vision won the 2014 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is the highest domestic honor in the field, recognizing chemical technologies that incorporate the principles of green chemistry into chemical design, manufacture, and use. So, it is clear that the quantum dot industry is making an important impact on our economy, and our environment, and it is an industry that is here to stay. Another example is the carbon nanotube sector, with companies like Nanocomp Technologies, Inc. that are producing materials that not only reduce weight but also greatly improve strength in all sorts of products.
Moving forward, we are honing our focus on supporting and expanding success stories like these, particularly as they relate to the commercialization of nanotechnologies. To that end, Dr. Lisa Friedersdorf, NNCO Deputy Director, and I have plans to visit all NSET agencies to talk about their agency’s vision and the NNCO’s vision and to try to establish a plan to more effectively work together to achieve the collective goals of the NNI. We recently visited the NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which is truly a world-class facility. This is yet another example of the success of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act and reflects the tangible return on investment from that piece of legislation.
So, I think there are a number of examples where nanotechnologies have definitely established a presence in the marketplace, but there is much more that we can do to facilitate the commercialization of nanotechnologies.
What is your plan to further impact commercialization?
Success will come from good communications and a focused effort to have NNI agencies work directly with industry to identify and address any roadblocks to commercialization. To that end, the NNCO has initiated a webinar series to highlight problems that industry is facing with regards to nanotech commercialization. This has proven to be a great communications vehicle to provide information, especially to small- and medium- sized business, on topics like insurance and regulations that could help them be more successful in their commercialization efforts. These webinars are scheduled to occur once every other month and are designed to be easily accessible to the broadest audience.
One of the challenges that we see regularly at the NanoBCA, is to address the question of whether or not the over $20 billion, that was invested by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, was worthwhile from a taxpayers’ perspective. Is this a question with which you are confronted?
Yes, this is a very important question that needs to be addressed loudly and clearly and provide a compelling justification for the past and continued investment in the NNI. Fortunately, I have benefitted from sitting on NSET through the critical years and have had a front row seat to witness the impact of this investment. As I mentioned before, there are tangible examples of the return on investment that can be seen in the establishment of new industries and new products which also, not insignificantly, mean new jobs. Also, there has been the establishment of critical new infrastructure, like the NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
However, it is critically important that the news of these returns be communicated clearly to all stakeholders, which includes the taxpayer, the media and the broader community beyond just those in industry and government who happen to be concerned with nanotechnology as a part of their daily function. That is the challenge that faces us today at NNCO.
To address that challenge and to do a better job of communication, NNCO is taking action on several fronts, some of which are quite simple yet very effective. I have already mentioned our webinar series. We are also developing our YouTube channel and reaching out to stakeholders in government and industry to contribute video content that highlights their work. Our goal is to create a buzz about the great potential of nanotechnology commercialization. We are also reaching out directly to students and have established several contests that they can participate in to highlight their research projects (and even art projects). The winners of these contests will be duly recognized at national events. Which brings me to my final point on this matter, which is that we are expanding and improving the quality of our events across the board with the intent of improving the overall impact of our communications.
Have you noticed, as we have at NanoBCA, that critics often have misconstrued the literal mandate of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act and perhaps not appreciated that the investment was designed to be on infrastructure and R&D, as the name of the Act itself suggests?
Since the inception of the NNI, participating agencies within the Federal government have invested over $20B in nanotechnology related R&D. So, I think it is a fair question to ask what the impact of that investment has been on the US economy and job creation. In fact, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (“PCAST”) in its last two reviews, and the National Research Council (“NRC”), in its last review, have both called for a clear set of metrics to measure the success of the NNI. We are carefully considering how to develop these metrics by utilizing reports, such as the series of reports over the years by firms such as Lux Research on total revenues generated by nanotech products, as well as other studies which measure the impact of emerging technologies in other ways. Some of the inputs are not just on revenue data, but also on foundational impact such as the establishment of new technologies, sectors and even industries.
The bottom line is that we all need to work together to create a better understanding, among the broadest audience possible, of the true impact of nanotechnologies on our society.