The Closing of NanoInk: What Social Scientists See

Last week I visited UCSB to talk about ideas circulating around labor, education and high-tech innovation in America today. I had prepared a couple of talks that weren’t exactly upbeat;  I have little confidence in the promises currently being made about biotech, greentech, and nanotech as sources of “middle skills” jobs, as this blog has made clear. As I was getting ready to speak, I noticed a flurry of emails coming in.  Friends and colleagues were forwarding me a stunning bit of news: Crain’s Business in Chicago was reporting that NanoInk, Inc.,  a company that has for a decade operated outside the city manufacturing nanotech inscription apparatus and related applications, had closed.

The firm had shut with little notice.  The short version of the story, as Crain’s has it, tells us that Ann Lurie, the main investor in NanoInk who had contributed $150m to the firm over the last ten years, no longer felt that her investment carried acceptable levels of risk.  She retains her faith in nanotechnology as a field of research, we read, but the return to date was too slow, too small, to assure (in her mind) an attractive future for the company and its several spin-offs.

NanoInk, located in the old industrial suburb Skokie, had grown from R&D visions of prominent nano-scientist and -advocate Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University, but the company had also developed a relatively affordable, instructional version of its instruments along with curricula for use in high-schools and colleges.  Thus it figures largely in research I’m doing with sociologist Mary Ebeling. We are writing about the idea that a nanomanufacturing sector promises wide-spread employment to those with 2-year degrees as “nanotechnicians.”  NanoInk represented one of the most concentrated efforts we had encountered aimed at projecting a world of successful nanotech R&D; widespread application and scale-up of that research; and expanding nano-focused post-secondary education and employment.  Local politicians and educators partnered with the firm on a great many projects meant to build on the emergent “nanocorridor”…even a new Skokie station for the Chicago El, to bring in the projected crowds of employees of NanoInk, other high-tech start-ups, and (it was hoped) newly busy diners and shops in the neighborhood.

Are we surprised that the company and its associated civic projects did not achieve the promised traction? No, but there is no satisfaction in being right. The company was at the heart of a high-tech incubator in a community in need of economic renewal.  The confidence of NanoInk’s leaders and personnel, and of its backers in local government offices, university departments, and nearby community colleges was palpable.  Everyone we spoke to along the way about NanoInk and its plans—from the company’s own lab techs and executives to the township’s economic planners and shop owners—was fired up, and it gradually became impossible to say that any particular expression of enthusiasm was clearly a bit of self-serving sales pitch rather than something more generous… perhaps intellectual excitement, or civic pride, or the desire for economic uplift for the region.  Maybe Patrick McCray’s idea of “visioneering” helps capture it: emergent science and technology wedded—practically but zealously– to the pursuit of a “better” future…but here on the part of everyone involved, not just the tech experts.

So if intentions themselves were not the problem, what can we learn about the failure of this enthusiasm  ultimately to translate into economic opportunity, to produce those new jobs? We’ll tell the story of the company’s aspirations and the complicated ripple effects of its closure in our book, but for the moment I want to point to one quote in the Crain’s story.  One faculty member at Oakton Community College, part of a network of educators and policy makers in the region who helped forward the vision of a near-term demand for  “nanolabor”,  spoke in the Crain’s piece of the changed status of his program:

“It was sad news,” says John Carzoli, a physics professor at Oakton. “We’ll use the instruments they provided until we run out of supplies or it breaks down…”

OCC may keep aspects of its nano-focused curriculum going, but the poignant note he sounds seems undeniable.  The school’s program, like so many at our  community colleges, functions downstream of corporate decision making and, not to put too fine a point on it, was born and may die by the fortunes of industrial capitalism.  The school, its students, its community, have little security as capital follows its own needs.  This, too, is risk.

I hope our book can do justice to all of the enthusiasm of NanoInk’s personnel and the tireless efforts of the community college instructors who see the sector as a promising one.  But perhaps we can also point the way to some “trickle up” by which the risks taken by public school systems, students, and workers, the critical priorities not of investors and boosters but of these other stakeholders,  may carry more influence in future planning.  Rather than cluck our tongues at NanoInk’s folding, let’s focus on this: What might that influence look like?

Be Sociable, Share!