Nano perspectives for NEO from an expert on high - John Belk of Boeing

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 04:47.

Nano Network, Ohio Aerospace Institute, NEOSA and Cleveland State hosted a
fascinating presentation by a Boeing Venture Capital manager, John Belk, which
provided expert industry insight from one of the world's most ingenious and
respected high technology manufacturing companies - Boeing. Rarely does one
hear such honest, open reflection on the role of an emerging technology from
such a unique perspective - showing how nano fits in a global $2 billion+
aerospace and defense business development strategy. Read some notes here -
feel free to post comments if you attended the session.

Belk presented the Nano Business Alliance projections of estimated market
shares of nanotech for '05, by industry sector, and it was surprising to see automotive
at the largest slice - up to 21% - followed by electronics, 19%, aerospace,
15%, energy, 10%, sports equipment (surprising... golf clubs, tennis balls,
shoes, for example), 7%... healthcare is just 2%. So, for Boeing, nano is big.
Boeing also gets much of its technology from other industries - especially
automotive and electronics - so they are looking at a larger slice overall.

Of great interest to them and in NEO is nanomaterials - nanoscale
manufacturing is enabling wholly new materials based on new science at
nanoscale - applications include self cleaning windows and deicing, which would
enable completely redesigning airplanes to make them more efficient and safer.
They also see making materials more fire resistant - and air filters that would
"kill" biohazards, which may be a terrorist risk. These applications
are realistic and the materials are getting cost competitive - carbon nanotubes
now cost ~$40/pound, which is comparable to other composites - these costs are
not an issue. There are 55 carbon nanotube manufacturers and 250 nanomaterial
manufacturers available today - this makes you realize how fast the industry
has developed in a few years.

An issue for Boeing is finding capable workforce with knowledge in the
field, with interdisciplinary skill-sets - need biologists, for example. To get
the skills they need, they hire, partner, contract and work with universities -
so if any are in NEO they should contact Boeing.

An interesting issue Belk raised is that there is public suspicion over the
risks of nano - even Prince Charles recently sounded an alarm about possible
hazards - industry cannot afford another "asbestos" image so safety
and smart PR is essential... such soft issues are a great concern. He suggests
nano industry leaders in NEO make sure the local media knows who to call when
they need expert perspectives - especially if there is a negative story in the
press - don't have them make random calls and get uninformed perspectives.

That does not trivialize the issues of good safe work processes - nano
requires revised standards for safe use, shop floor monitoring tools, and
modified operating processes - and he sees needs at Boeing and elsewhere for
better monitoring tools - perhaps opportunity for a NEO business?!

As Boeing spends over $2 billion a year on R&D, they do look for good
science everywhere, but 90% of their R&D is through knowledge sharing - not
at their expense. If approached by an outside inventor, firm or university,
they expect the inventor to "educate" Boeing on the new technology
proposed - then Boeing puts that through their global expert network.

Belk sees amazing things developing in nano labs around the world, and they
monitor everything everywhere - from Russia to South Africa (which happens to
have an overabundance of nanoclays).

In the US, he finds bulk of spending in CA, TX and MA - he feels research
centers in TX and CA are too spread out and so seems to focus on Boston, where
he thinks Boeing should invest. Hearing that, the audience seemed to
collectively slump in their chairs.

Belk made the observation regarding China that the US "is in
trouble" - in China the early development was sloppy bit now it is
world-class, and they are accelerating the pace. He mentioned meeting some
researchers in Singapore who were educated in the US but do most of their
research with Chinese scientists - consider what is developed here is known in
China, but little happening there is known here, and consider that is quite

He shared some perspectives on working at Boeing - getting increasingly
secretive - work culture too aggressive - worried about job security - most of
time managing global contract relationships - impersonalized communications,
increasingly electronic - narrow job focus.

Where is nano happening at Boeing today - barrier films - nanoscale particle
polish for optics - pushing hard in electronics and composites. FAA cabin air
quality initiative was just announced, which will drive development of filters.

Where he sees needs - software is largely "back of napkin" for
nano modeling - lots of people working on bits and pieces - an example is BASP.
Also mentioned need for shop floor monitoring tools.

Regarding approaching Boeing to propose a technology or discovery - Belk
said "heaven help the solitary researcher who approaches them without
knowing how to use their discovery" - they need to educate Boeing or
Boeing will suggest they go somewhere else to develop the discovery better -
Boeing is not a PARC - they are a BASF. A technology must stand on its own -
they must be able to use the tech - then they'll get their experts worldwide to
evaluate if it is any good. Is it credible - what is impact on Boeing systems?
Belk also mentioned they have a long budgeting process and it can be a while
before any cash will flow.

All that said, Belk gave his email address and said feel free to contact him
if you think you have a viable invention, and suggested the best way to get
into their pipeline is to go to a conference on your technology where Boeing is
attending and meet there with the appropriate expert, where you are both in a
credible place to talk shop.

The most valuable perspective I took from the meeting was how far along are
nanomaterials - 250 suppliers - and how significant many aspects of nano have
become to manufacturers like Boeing. It will be very interesting to watch the
evolution of this industry in NEO and see what other successes we have here -
and how advances in the science translate into products and services we
experience in every day live. For thoughts on that, read notes from the Future
Forum at held a few hours before this nano presentation, just a few
blocks down the street, and know we're more than just talking about all this -
it is part of our local future.

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