By Paul Alivisatos
From the time I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the early 1980s, I always wanted to find a way for the fundamental research I was part of to also find a practical use. This follows from the broader ethos of Berkeley, where scholarship is brought to bear on changing the world in many different ways, and has guided me in my choices over the years. It is one of several factors that led me to a postdoctoral position at Bell Labs, and a strong motivation for my choice to work on tiny crystals in the first place, at a time when this was not a recognizable subject for my field. At that time there were many debates among academic colleagues in my discipline at Berkeley about the relative merits of basic and applied research, which were generally viewed as quite distinct from each other. At Bell Labs I sensed that the community had a more nuanced and refined concept in which these two could ideally be seamlessly integrated, one always enhancing the other and often morphing unexpectedly between them. It has always been my personal goal to work in this way.
I have personally been involved in the creation of three companies, Quantum Dot Corporation, Nanosys, Inc, and Solexant, Inc. Each was a wonderful adventure that followed from our team’s very foundational research in nanomaterials. Quantum Dot is now part of a large biotech company, and the products that were first designed at that company are widely used today in medical bio-imaging. Solexant didn’t work out as well, as we had misjudged the nature of the opportunity in solar. Nanosys has been the most fun of all, as the materials we developed continue to have more and more impact in diverse areas, especially in wide color gamut energy efficient displays that are now widely available commercially. I am viewing this document as I write it on a Quantum Dot display that is just beautiful.
In all three cases, my engagement in the world of entrepreneurship did not just follow research in the lab. It in fact greatly enriched my academic work. Once a company sets to developing a technology that has been first demonstrated at a base level in a university, the focus narrows, and the pace quickens remarkably. In all three cases, it was not long before I could see that these companies surpassed anything that a university lab could do, my lab or even, I believe, those of my outstanding colleagues elsewhere. That has thrust me into periods of introspection, where I was forced early on to consider how to adapt to a changing reality. This can be hard, as it means changing directions, or even walking away from some potential publications which are still possible in the academic world, but which are no longer at the cutting edge of technology. I suspect many of my more entrepreneurial colleagues will recognize this situation. In the end, it has prompted me to move along towards the questions that are best suited to an academic group, while also providing me invaluable context for the possibilities of my work.
As an academic scholar, a deep commitment to patient scholarship and careful foundational work is essential. Still, entrepreneurship has been an invaluable aid to my intellectual renewal, and it has helped me be at the forefront of new directions in my field. I still am looking for an opportunity for another foray into entrepreneurship with excitement. I have learned a lot from all my prior experiences, and I think that next time, if I am careful, I can go even further in realizing my career-long dream of participating in the full journey wherein my foundational academic research reaches out to make an important positive difference in this world.