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IMM Report Number 5

In conjunction with Foresight Update 34

IMM Update: Current Status and Future Directions

Neil Jacobstein

The Institute for Molecular Manufacturing is a nonprofit molecular nanotechnology research organization. With this issue of Foresight Update, we include the IMM Report, to be produced jointly with Update. Here we review IMM’s past performance, present projects, and future plans.

Research conducted by the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing has already changed the world. IMM sponsored the research and publication of Dr. K. Eric Drexler’s Nanosystems textbook, which provided the applied science foundation for the field, and won the Computer Science Book of the Year Award in 1993. In the seven years since its founding in 1991, IMM has emerged as a world leader in molecular nanotechnology theoretical work in several timeframes:

  • Near-term: IMM work on the two development pathways — chemical (supramolecular) and physical (scanning probe) — is the most advanced theoretical work done to date, published in highly-regarded journals in those fields.

  • Medium-term: IMM funded the most advanced software written to date for the automated design of 3D polymer structure internal configurations: a major challenge in designing early-generation molecular machines.

  • Long-term: IMM designs of complex molecular machinery are the most advanced done to date, and have survived intense critical review by the research community. Recent examples: include a simple pump, selective for neon [], a fine-motion controller for molecular assembly [], and a molecular differential gear [].

Despite its technical success, IMM still struggles financially. Its research focus is too long for most venture capital, where the business goal is typically a five fold return on investment within 3-5 years. In addition, IMM’s engineering oriented research goals projects are not geared for academic funding. Thus, IMM has operated entirely on private sponsorship, with no government funding to date. This may change. We intend to fund at least 50% of IMM research out of consortium fees, grants, and other research initiatives. For example, Drexler, Hall, Forrest, and Jacobstein have recently proposed studies of molecular nanotechnology applications to several federal agencies. In addition, IMM is searching actively for an Executive Director to lead the day-to-day technical and contract operations of IMM. Finally, the new Research Associates and Fellows program is designed to bring together an extended community of researchers engaged in on going molecular manufacturing research. When this new program is fully funded, Dr. Eric Drexler will become IMM’s Chief Scientist.

We envision IMM evolving into a full fledged molecular nanotechnology research institution and center of excellence. What would distinguish IMM from other research centers? A focus on:

  • R&D for effective and responsible use of molecular manufacturing

  • 3D, bottom up, aperiodic molecular manufacturing vs. top down nanolithography

  • concept leadership in the ecology of ideas surrounding molecular manufacturing

  • the ability to initiate R&D projects, rather than just respond to existing proposal opportunities

  • extraordinary productivity in terms of key ideas and output per unit time and money expended.

The IMM Board of Directors and Senior Associates have discussed five models for growing IMM:

  1. A Few Researchers and a Web Site. We have this model by definition. However, it cannot approximate the critical mass and research power of a sharp and closely knit team deeply engaged with each other and a common research objective.

  2. Non-Profit R&D for Hire. This model would target a few big contract research proposals per year. Downside: research for hire tends to warp the researcher’s vision in the direction of what is currently in style.

  3. Subscription. The Santa Fe Institute uses this model successfully. It allows researchers to focus on doing their work vs. getting research funded. However, committed, well-funded sponsors are hard to find.

  4. Intellectual Property Factory. This model has the upside potential of capturing huge royalties via gateway patents on critical nano devices. In reality, patents are difficult, costly, and time-consuming to enforce, independent of their effect on innovation. Thus, as a means of funding research, they are uncertain and slow at best.

  5. International Consortium. IMM is currently analyzing the merits of creating an international consortium of research groups working on molecular manufacturing. Upsides include annual corporate support to participate in consortium "joint venture" results, shared ethical guidelines, potentially larger, faster, and more diverse teams with considerable collaboration and research results sharing. Downsides: consortium politics, security issues, and potential loss of research autonomy.

IMM would benefit from a large endowment. In the mean time, we will augment private donations with some contract R&D, and possibly an international consortium.

There are currently two key ways to become involved in IMM:

  • Contribute your energy and intellect. Participate directly with us, either by volunteering some time for one or more of our new initiatives, or by participating in IMM events. See our web site at for details.

  • If you are able to provide one large donation this year, please do it now. Your tax-deductible donation will have a large multiplier effect both in terms of on-going financial support for IMM, and in terms of the size and quality of IMM’s research program.

One of the rare privileges in life is to be able to contribute to something that really makes a difference. No matter how you contribute, IMM is an opportunity to participate in a fundamental shift in our relationship to matter and technology. Don’t miss it!

Neil Jacobstein is Chairman of the Board of IMM, and President & Chief Operating Officer of Teknowledge Corporation.