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Rebounding Telecom Corridor Places Hope on Revamped Technologies

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Matt Blanton, CEO, StarTech Early Ventures: We just moved through what we call nuclear winter, seeing our way through that.

Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Matt Blanton is CEO of StarTech Early Ventures of Richardson, which offers seed money and expertise to promising high-tech companies. Although statewide capital investing has fallen over the past two years, dropping Texas from 14th place to 23rd nationally, Blanton is bullish. In the last year, StarTech has invested in new companies, on average, almost once a month.

Blanton: Think about the mid 80's, the computer didn't exist. Microsoft, Cisco - if they existed - were very small. The new Dells, Ciscos; our bet is we'll have one or more in our area. I'm convinced three years from now it'll be totally different. We'll have companies whose concept didn't even exist before the bubble.

Zeeble: Venture capital investments usually point to some of the hottest commercial properties around. StarTech's invested in software for companies and telecommunications, has money in wireless communications, bio-med and biotechnology companies, and homeland and cyber security. Other venture firms are also focused on nanotechnology and semi-conductor businesses, and broadband companies that rapidly deliver huge amounts of web content. Several have money in wireless sensor networks, including Globe Ranger of Richardson. The company is helping the world's retail giant Wal-Mart track all of its shipped goods using radio frequency identification chips, or tags, also called RFID. Wal-Mart has selected seven North Texas stores and its Sanger distribution center to test the chips at the warehouse level, starting this week.

George Brody, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Globe Ranger: This is the future. RFID, as a technology, is like wireless.

Zeeble: George Brody, founder and Chief Technology Officer of Globe Ranger, developed the software and hardware system that's making the Wal-Mart test possible. Globe Ranger's Marketing Vice President Jennifer Mao says the process starts with crates of goods tagged with RFID chips. Instead of someone hand-scanning bar code after bar code on boxes of goods moving through a warehouse, a worker just pushes the whole payload through.

Globe Ranger Demontration: "Please pass the items through the portal."

Zeeble: It's tallied all at once.

Jennifer Mao, Vice President of Marketing, Globe Ranger: Once I've done that, I can now actually finish the receiving process. I've recorded damages, done the reconciliation, and I can say I'm finished with this particular receiving process and I just simply - beep beep - "Thank you, your order has been completed." It saves a lot of labor and time during the receiving process. That's a major advantage for any warehouse.

Zeeble: George Brody says Wal-Mart's just the start. Not only does he expect other retailers to adopt this technology, he imagines RFID chips on everything from cash to clothes, with readers or sensors to monitor everything.

Brody: There'll be infrastructure today tracking you, as you go thru the city. Infrastructure, readers, all over the place, that tracks items as you and I move. Or inside this building.

Dave Zumwalt, CEO, Privacy, Inc.: I don't want to walk into a store and be scanned and have someone know what I'm wearing or what I paid for it, or in all likelihood what I'm probably worth.

Zeeble: Dave Zumwalt is the CEO of Dallas-based Privacy Inc. The business was set up to allow protected online transactions between people and businesses. It creates a safe cyber space - imagine a secure room - for transactions. Zumwalt now sees potential growth in creating privacy protection from RFID as well.

Zumwalt: You've got to love RFID technology. You're using a toll tag or speed pass; you're using that technology today. No doubt it'll drive efficiencies at the retail level. But clearly there are huge privacy implications around this. The only way RFID will reach their potential is if privacy issues are addressed.

Zeeble: As Zumwalt's business works on RFID security, he expects he'll need more people. The company has grown from 2 to 27 in about a year. And 40 percent of new hires, says Zumwalt, have come from local, laid-off workers. Like George Brody, Zumwalt envisions his business booming in the near future, as he tries to secure partnerships with banks, internet service providers and others. Then there's another field generating widespread interest - nanotechnology. It's an emerging science where products are manufactured at the molecular level.

Movie Clip from "The Man in the White Suit": "I've got it!!!! Doesn't stain, can't tear, won't wear out."

Zeeble: More than half a century ago, this British science fiction comedy "The Man in the White Suit" satirically played with the premise of a perfect fabric. These days, thanks to relatively simple nanotechnology, people can buy cotton pants that reject moisture and stains, and cosmetics that block UV rays. Zyvex, a seven-year-old business adjacent to empty Telecom Corridor offices in Richardson, was founded by CEO James von Ehr.

James von Ehr, CEO, Zyvex: We wanted to change how we do manufacturing; actually do manufacturing with atomic precision.

Zeeble: In its lab, Zyvex is developing ways to use carbon nanotubes. These tiny nanotubes are - pound for pound - a hundred times stronger than steel, at a fraction of the weight but at roughly 500,000 times the cost. Von Her's vision for Zyvex sounds both unreal and obtainable. He sees the efficient construction of life and time-saving inventions built with nanotechnology. No more mining, drilling or waste to get metals or oil. Just build what's needed, atom by atom.

Von Ehr: Old businesses oughta worry about the future because it'll be changed by nanotechnology. If we could really build things with atomic precision, we'd really have a revolution in materials, in computers, energy - better solar cells, and particularly medicine.

Zeeble: Von Ehr says future disease cures could come from injectable, man-made nano machines.

Von Ehr: There's a company in Houston that has what's called a nano-shell, still experimenting with it in rats. They put these nano-shells in the body, and they tend to stick where cancer is. Then you shine a low-power infrared laser into the rat. That passes through flesh pretty easily; it doesn't heat it up much, but these nano-shells absorb it strongly. They heat up, and cook the tissue they're attached to, which kills the cancer cells.

Zeeble: Von Ehr says some Zyvex products have sold on the market, but concedes nano-shells are years away. Terry Traveland, Executive Director of the North Texas Technology Council, sees quicker economic growth coming from more conventional sectors in the telecom corridor - wireless and bandwidth.

Terry Traveland, Executive Director, North Texas Technology Council: Because people want things, they want it instantly, they want it wireless, they want the ease of use, and that's exactly where they're going. And they want it cheap.

Zeeble: That's why semiconductor giant Texas Instruments remains optimistic, despite the recent downturn. The economy's picking up, says Vice President Mike Hames, and TI will soon build a new chip plant here.

Michael Hames, Vice President, Application Specific Products, Texas Instruments: We're in everything - infrastructure, whether in the base stations as we go to the next generation of cellular standards, whether in the handsets you're upgrading and buying, whether in the digital camera you may buy for Christmas. Before long, we'll be walking around with HD (high definition) camcorders to display on new our new HDTV's; a whole host of safety features, wireless internet cameras.

Zeeble: Hames, Traveland, and others say jobs in the telecom corridor will re-appear, as companies continue connecting every home in the nation to the web, and as computers and hand-held communication devices grow smaller, more powerful, and ubiquitous. Overall, analysts aren't predicting which new technology will break out, to lead an economic resurgence in the area. But they do expect tech companies to see slower annual growth than the unrealistic 10- to 20 percent range of the late 1990's. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.

 

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