NOTE: This first appreared in the Feb. 20 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger
You could say Dean Hart is building a farm system for his league.
Hart’s parent company, Skokie-based NanoInk Inc., has been a leader in developing equipment and systems for the nanotechnology industry. For those not into nano, it’s an industry that’s based on developing things that are one billionth of a meter in size (about 80,000 times smaller than a human hair). Nanotechnology’s potential has expanded exponentially over the past decades, moving from primarily computer processors into every day applications, from medicine delivery systems to the stuff that keeps stains from settling on your clothes and carpets.
As a result of that growth, Hart said, the nanotechnology industry will generate $1 trillion in business by 2020, creating the need of 6 million new jobs globally. However, nanotechnology education has been traditionally taught in “cleanroom” environments either on the job or at a the advanced-degree level at a few colleges, which is creating a gap in skilled workers to fill the increasing number of jobs ahead.
“The problem became how can we drive nano education to the undergraduate level and create a true nano-savvy workforce?” Hart said.
To answer that, NanoInk has created an educational division called NanoProfessor. Hart, who is NanoProfessor’s chief commercial officer, led development of a three-pronged education program that can be used by schools to teach nanotechnology. The program provides equipment developed by NanoInk — which Hart notes does not need to be used in a cleanroom — as well as a textbook and laboratory exercises. The program also teaches the instructors how to administer the program and provides support to the schools.
NanoProfessor’s goal is to help schools gets students interested in nanotechnology earlier in the educational process. With President Obama’s push to increase education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Hart notes this program is a good fit in that mandate.
“We need to keep asking, how do we continue to excite students around STEM?” he said. “Well, nanotechnology — if you do it right — can be one of the most exciting things in the world.”
While NanoProfessor was originally developed to focus on colleges, Hart said they have received increasing interest in the program from community colleges and high schools. Last month, NanoProfessor held a three-day “NanoCamp” for a group of science teachers from Wheeling High School, where they were introduced to the program and given hands-on experience with the equipment and labs.
“We received an introduction to nanoscience and conducted hands-on training with NanoInk’s NLP 2000, which enabled us to make structures at the nanoscale on a desktop system, something that is usually only able to be done in a multimillion dollar cleanroom,” Wheeling biology teacher Frank Caballero said in a news release. “We are very excited to take what we’ve learned back to the classroom. Exposure to these advances in science will interest students pursuing careers in medicine, scientific research, engineering, and others.”
Hart said Wheeling High Principal Lazaro Lopez and the teachers were very positive about the experience and he hopes they will be able to adopt the program at the Northwest Suburban District 214 school in the near future.
In addition, City Colleges of Chicago has partnered with NanoProfessor to provide two students in the college’s “Introduction to Nanotechnology” course with paid summer internships at NanoProfessor’s labs in Skokie.
“Our partnership with NanoProfessor will offer our students an unprecedented opportunity to build valuable technical skills and gain real-world experience in the growing nanotechnology industry,” Cheryl L. Hyman, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, said in a release.
Hart added the internship helps NanoProfessor by bringing a fresh perspective into the company to help develop new products and concepts.
“Our interns are finding ways to do things that our Ph.D’s haven’t thought of, and that’s a beautiful thing,” he said.
Hart is quick to note that, although NanoProfessor students learn on NanoInk equipment, the program goes well beyond learning how to use the tools. The entire program is structured around teaching students the concepts of nanotechnology and how it relates to the sciences of biology, chemistry and physics. That, he said, gives the students marketable skills in the industry, and gives the U.S. a leg up in the global race for jobs.
“There’s no doubt that this is a race. There is competition,” Hart said. “Other countries have already recognized that those with a trained workforce will be the leaders in attracting new companies to them.”
Hart said he understands the need for schools and funding agencies to be able to justify the return on the investment (NanoProfessor’s cost is less than $300,000, which is far less expensive than building a cleanroom environment classroom). But, he added, it is also important that the industry have a pool of trained workers to fill the growing demand in jobs over the next several years, and it will be the schools that will drive that need.
“I want to see these colleges and schools training students because that’s where my future workforce is coming from,” he said. “I need undergrads who are nano savvy who can serve as my trainers, my installers, my marketing people, and get this done, and do that at significantly less expense than have a company full of Ph. Ds.”