Skip to main content

Industrial Physics Forum 2013: Innovation and entrepeneurship

Speakers from DARPA, NASA, Fraunhofer, and Texas Instruments kicked off the latest forum, whose theme was physics and the future economy.

With sequestration and a worldwide recession looming large, last week's Industrial Physics Forum tackled a particularly timely theme, 'Physics and Future Economy.' The forum took place in Baltimore, held in conjunction with the March meeting of the American Physical Society.

The opening session explored the roles that physicists can play as innovators and entrepreneurs. Its four speakers hail from governmental agencies, research organizations, and business consortia that build bridges between academics and industry.

DARPA physicists tip the scales

Tasked with maintaining the United States' technological edge, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has already spawned inventions used in the commercial sector, from the internet to the tiny amps that power cell phone antennas. Robert Colwell, director of DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office, said that physicists bring an unusual point of view to such projects.

'They ask two things immediately,' said Colwell. 'What's the time scale, and what's the spatial scale?'

That approach to pinning down problems recently created controversy over how explosions damage soldiers' brains. Physicians commissioned by the Army to study blast exposure noted symptoms much like those caused by car crashes or blows in a boxing match. That similarity led the doctors to posit a common source of injury, the acceleration of the brain against the skull.

A DARPA physicist challenged that idea. Unlike auto collisions or contact sports, explosions release pressure waves into the air. Those waves pass through the body in microseconds, seemingly too short a time scale for significant acceleration to take place in an object the size of the human brain.

Concerned about accurate measuring, DARPA has mounted sensors on the helmets of 33 000 soldiers that detect both acceleration and pressure. The blast gauges have revealed potentially harmful exposures during training, when rookies stand in the wrong place while firing mortars or missile launchers.

Colwell also described other DARPA projects in which physicists play key roles, from new kinds of night vision to anti-missile lasers currently under development.

NASA and beyond

Mason Peck, chief technologist for NASA, echoed the importance of the perspective that physicists provide. As the overseer of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, he values physicists' ability to straddle the science community, which tends to identify scientific needs and ask for technologies to tackle them, and the engineering community, which develops new technologies and then asks what scientific needs could be addressed with them.

'Those questions never meet in the middle, unless you've got a physicist handy,' said Peck. 'It's that discipline that somehow manages to speak both parts of the language.'

The directorate's portfolio of new technologies, intended to further space exploration while stimulating the economy, include an inflatable heat shield. The device promises to safely land more mass on Mars than is possible today, thus paving the way for boots on the Red Planet.

Higher risk, higher yield ideas are funded by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program. These often come from basic science laboratories, said Peck, particularly ones staffed by material scientists, energy physicists, and researchers developing new sensors and actuators. One example he cited, a device still in early stages of development, would knock space debris out of orbit using focused pulses of gas from the atmosphere.

In addition to its large-scale projects, NASA supports smaller enterprises meant to open up space to more people. For around $100 000, universities can now build grapefruit-sized satellites called CubeSats launched for free by NASA. Expect to see more prizes encouraging such endeavors, said Peck, including one for a CubeSat capable of returning from orbit.

During his talk, Peck removed a computer chip the size of a few stamps from his pocket and held up the would-be satellite as an example of the new economic paradigms emerging for space. Cornell graduate student Zach Manchester plans to launch about 300 of his ChipSats into orbit this year, thanks to money raised on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

A German perspective

Encouraging new entrepreneur enterprises is also part of the core mission of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, said Hubert Lanker of the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems, one of the German organization's 56 research institutes. Named for scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur Joseph von Fraunhofer, the organization brings in more than 70% of its funding from industry.

Researchers at Fraunhofer institutes are actively encouraged to launch their own spin-off companies, and allowed to return if their enterprises fail. 'We try to find people who want to be entrepreneurs,' said Lanker. 'Someone who only wants publications in Nature won't be happy at Fraunhofer.'

HiperScan GmbH, one of the 150 successful spin-offs to date, builds infrared microspectrometers used to test the quality of traditional Chinese herbs. Fraunhofer is a shareholder in 90% of those companies and owns up to 25% of their stock.

One problem the German institute faces is that many of its inventions have gone on to make big money for companies abroad. The mp3 standard patented at Fraunhofer, for instance, has generated $100 million in revenue for the organization. But more money has been made by companies in Japan and France that license the technology.

'It is definitely a success for Fraunhofer, but it's not a success for Germany,' he says.

Innovation clusters that bring together industry, research organizations, and academia could help to address that problem. Silicon Saxony in Eastern Germany, Europe's biggest nanoelectronics cluster, has gathered 300 companies that work alongside organizations such as Fraunhafer to develop semiconductor devices and other technologies.

Filling the gaps in semiconductor research

Robert Doering of Texas Instruments traced the history of a partnership between industry, government, and academia in the United States fostered by the Semiconductor Research Corporation.

In 1992 SRC released its first of many national road maps for the integrated circuit industry. The document identified key technical hurtles and spelled out specific goals for improving various circuit parameters. That work led to a 1994 declaration that the industry faced a billion-plus dollar shortfall in research funding. To meet its technical targets, industry decided to approach universities to help out.

'We began to think, let's see if we can create an environment in which we can work together with universities and, where appropriate, use their talents and labs and abilities to address that gap,' said Doering.

Today, physicists at 40 different universities develop next-generation materials for computing, under the umbrella of the STARnet network funded in part by the US semiconductor industry and in part by DARPA. At Columbia University, for instance, STARnet member Philip Kim investigates atom-thin layers of material stacked on top of each other and held together by weak Van der Waals force.

A second network funded through the SRC's Nanoelectronics Research Initiative hopes, by 2020, to develop a new kind of switch that can replace silicon transistors. Promising approaches include thin ribbons of graphene and devices that use exploit spin torque to flip bits.

Partnering with universities has given industry both ideas for future products and new students to one day develop those products, said Doering. He adds that 68% of students who participate in SRC projects remain in the SRC community after graduation.

Devin Powell is a freelance science writer based in Washington, DC. His stories have appeared in Science News, Wired, US News & World Report, and other outlets.


Submit comment
Comment moderation successfully completed
ec53185b92e297f26a707ada48e7a20c ptol.magazine_postzxybnytfddd