Olga Koper, Nanotechnologist
Nanotechnology is all about small--manufacturing with atoms and manipulating materials no bigger than a billionth of a meter--but its potential is Brobdingnagian. Steve Jurvetson of powerhouse venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson has called nanotech "the next great technology wave, the next phase of Moore's Law and the nexus of scientific innovation that revolutionizes most industries and indirectly affects the fabric of society."
At the crest of this wave is Olga Koper, research leader at Columbus, Ohio's nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute since May 2011 and holder of more than 30 U.S. and international patents for composition and applications of nanomaterials.
Koper, who describes her research as a "humongous playground to apply science to change and improve lives," isn't your usual ivory-tower type. "A lot of academia and national labs are great at fundamental science but don't know how to turn it into a product," she says. "In business, you have to take calculated risks, have failures and learn from them, and you have to address actual needs of the market--not with a 'nice to have,' but a 'have to have.'"
Back in 2007 Koper joined the charter class of Pipeline, an invitation-only mentoring organization affiliated with the Kauffman Foundation and Microsoft, known for honing business-development skills in new entrepreneurs. As CTO and vice president of NanoScale Corporation, a spinoff of Kansas State University (where she earned her Ph.D. in chemistry), she led the development of commercial products. Among them were FAST-ACT, a nanopowder that absorbs and mitigates toxic and waste chemicals, and an in vitro cancer-diagnosis system--currently in animal and preliminary human testing--in which nanoparticles measure the activity of cancer-specific enzymes in blood and urine using luminescence.
At Battelle, Koper is studying the use of nanomaterials in membranes for water desalination and treatment; supercapacitors (energy-storage devices that provide higher power densities than batteries); and bio-based (rather than petroleum-based) additives used for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to retrieve natural gas.
"It's exciting, because the research can make a huge impact in energy storage and the oil and gas industry," she says. "Hopefully we'll see products containing these nanomaterials in the market."
And not a (nano)second too soon.