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Nanotech: Dissecting What It Is, and Isn't

5. 'Nanotechnology will bring revolutionary change.'

For all of the life-transforming potential often attributed to nanotechnology, the products that have reached the commercial market so far are less than thrilling: car doors that are sturdier, golf balls that can fly a little farther, pants that resist wine stains. Anyone waiting for a big breakthrough that will announce the nanotech age will probably be waiting a long, long time.

"People think a bell is going to ring and suddenly we'll be in age of nanotechnology," says Charles Harris, CEO of Harris & Harris Group (TINY), a venture capital shop investing primarily in nanotech start-ups. "It's more likely to be evolutionary before it's revolutionary."

Because the effects of nanotechnology are likely to be far-flung across a wide spectrum of industries, its progress will come in fits and starts -- first in materials, then in an unrelated area such as semiconductors, then somewhere else such as drug development. "Let's say you have important breakthroughs enabled by nanotech in drug delivery," says Harris. "Is that going to kick off a lot of interest on the part of investors the semiconductor industry? Probably not. You might see commercialization taking hold in a particular area and a cluster of companies emerging from that area then being acquired or going public."

"There are very few quantum leaps in technology, where something happens and is totally changes the game," says Warren Packard, a venture capitalist at Draper Fisher Jurvetson. "More often, things are evolutionary but they're exponentially evolutionary. Everything we build today is built on what we built yesterday. But because of that, it grows by an exponential factor."

Packard believes that the changes that nanotechnology will bring won't be noticed on a daily basis. "Nanopants aren't going to change your life," he says. "But after nanopants, there will be something like nanomemory and a TiVo with infinite memory, then maybe quantum computers -- then, who knows -- devices with computing power that makes them as smart as you? If you were to fall asleep today and wake up in 20 years, you'd be shocked at the difference."
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