The Wave of Next-Generation Innovators

Forward-thinking entrepreneurs are making strides in promising areas--from nanotech to biotech to semiconductors. Will any of them build the next Microsoft?

Scott Rickert wants to make countless homes energy-efficient--and even self-cleaning--with his nanotechnology films. Linda Pinney hopes to sell her automated prescription-pickup kiosks to the nation's 40,000 big-chain pharmacies. Heng Liu's prospects are even more ambitious--Liu wants to, as one of his investors puts it, "replace all the bulbs in all the offices in the world" with his light-emitting semiconductors.

Whether one of these entrepreneurs' companies becomes the next Microsoft, Dell or Google, there's little doubt they operate in some of the most promising fields. Pinney, 44, founded Asteres Inc., a San Diego company in the red-hot medical devices space.

Rickert, 52, has Cleveland-based, multimillion-dollar Nanofilm Ltd. poised to exploit one of business's most talked-about areas. Liu, 46, has patents on technology that could save billions in energy costs every year.

Those are just a few of the sectors and companies that are producing the next generation of technology innovators. Biotechnology, space, security, media and entertainment, and software (including internet companies) are also steaming. Says futurist James Canton, CEO of San Francisco's Institute for Global Futures, "[Right now] is the largest personal opportunity for entrepreneurs in the history of civilization."

While entrepreneurs pour sweat into the opportunities, VCs talk with dollars. According to the "MoneyTree Report" from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association, based on data from Thomson Financial, software ventures snagged more than $1.22 billion, or nearly 22 percent, of the $5.6 billion in first-quarter 2006 venture investments. Biotech got 14 per-cent, or $808 million; medical devices 12 percent, or $690 million; telecommunications almost 11 percent, or $601 million; and semiconductors 8 percent, or $447 million.

Money alone won't make the next eBay, but venture money sniffs out likely candidates and, by funding new technologies, makes entrepreneurial superstardom possible. "The reason they call it venture capital is because they are willing to take the risks to develop new technologies that really do change the nature of things," says Tracy T. Lefteroff, global managing partner of private equity and venture capital for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Nano Domini?
Innovators tend to be category-busters, so the next Bill Gates may well run a business that does not fit a current paradigm. Take nanotechnology: PricewaterhouseCoopers' venture capital survey doesn't separate businesses engaged in building objects on a scale of 100 billionths of a meter or less into their own classification because they work in many different industries. But overall, these enterprises received about $237 million in venture funding in the first quarter of 2006.

Rickert started Nanofilm in 1985 and says building small is finally poised to hit the big time, thanks largely to support from Washington, DC. "It's fundamentally the industrial policy of the U.S. now to support and encourage nanotech," he says. "That is a major shift. There hasn't been an industrial policy of the U.S. since the space race." Among other things, it means approximately $1 billion a year of federal money goes to nanotech R&D. That has encouraged many local and state governments to start their own nanotech economic development efforts, and nearly all major universities have significant nanotech research efforts underway.

Rickert's company and most others in nanotech focus on films rather than the miniature machines extolled by sci-fi writers. Automakers are big buyers, he says, using films to make windshields that don't need wipers and mirrors that never fog. Eventually, he forecasts that homes' surfaces will be rendered dirt-repellent with nanotechnology. "The house should basically clean itself and maintain its own energy needs," he says. "That's a dream, but we have a product in mind that will help that dream come true."

Hundreds of nano-enabled products are already here, says Scott Irwin, general partner with El Dorado Ventures, a Menlo Park, California, venture firm with nano-tech investments. Semiconductors, solar cells, batteries and clothing are a few everyday nanotech items. Says Irwin, "It's going to happen more quickly than most people realize, and it's going to be a big market."

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This article was originally published in the September 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Next-Gen Innovators.

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