November 30, 2009
"Nanogeek", The Man Behind SUNYIT's Nanotech Project
By: by Elizabeth Cooper, Utica Observer
There's a new kind of geek in town.
One who drives a Ferrari with the license plate "DR NANO" and a supercharged Range Rover with the license tag "NANOGEEK."
One who admits that he lived "a quarter of a mile from all the bars" when he was working on his Ph.D at the University of Illinois, but "didn't know they existed."
He's Alain Kaloyeros, and geek or not, he is one of the prime movers in bringing a nanotechnology center to SUNYIT.
The center promises to bring hundreds of jobs to the Mohawk Valley and raise SUNYIT's profile significantly.
SUNYIT is partnering on the project with the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which Kaloyeros leads as senior vice president and CEO. Also part of the project are major computer companies including IBM, Intel and the SEMATECH consortium.
Kaloyeros is widely credited with making his institution into a global center for the cutting-edge technology. Nanotechnology involves working at the atomic and molecular level to create ever-faster, ever-smaller computer chips for devices like your cell phone.
He has generated $5 billion in funds for his institution, which he says might be the most ever brought to a university by one professor.
And now, he has turned his energies westward toward Marcy, where the SUNYIT center might attract numerous private technology companies and revitalize the struggling local economy.
"We identified Utica-Rome as the next logical location for expanding the partnership," Kaloyeros said.
Kaloyeros, along with SUNYIT President Bjong Wolf Yeigh, Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, announced the new $45 million Computer Chip Commercialization Center in July.
Yeigh and Destito credit Kaaloyeros with the vision to make it happen.
"He is very smart, he is very business savvy and, really, he is a builder," Yeigh said. "A builder of enterprises that could really add value to SUNY."
'In the trunk'
When a reporter called him a major player in the state's nanotechnology initiative, Kaloyeros demurred.
"I'm not a major player, I'm just in the trunk," he replied, pointing to Yeigh and Destito as the real prime movers on the project.
Then he segued into a string of metaphors involving cars.
Is he a car guy?
"There are car guys, but I'm not one of them," he said. "I'm an art guy. I like Italian. Exotic. In the shape of a Ferrari. It's not a car, it's a symphony."
Such responses are typical of Kaloyeros, who speaks with an accent and fills even highly technical conversation with clever comments and witty repartee.
Asked where he grew up, the 53-year-old Kaloyeros' first response is "some claim I never grew up."
Pressed, he said he was born in Beirut, Lebanon, the son of a Greek father and a Lebanese mother.
He remained there until that country's civil war began in the mid-1970s.
He came to the United States to work on a Ph.D the University of Miami, but soon transferred to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
In Illinois, he studied with John Bardeen, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.
Kaloyeros earned his Ph.D in experimental condensed matter physics in 1987.
'An Acropolis for innovation'
Although Kaloyeros didn't do his Ph.D thesis on computers, the first grant he was ever offered was on computer chips, with the SEMATECH consortium in Albany.
He quickly fell in love with nanotechnology.
"I found the community and the industry fascinating," he said. "It's the most state of the art, the richest and most influential in terns of innovation, funding and technological breakthroughs."
Although the field was growing, the cost of research and development was becoming prohibitive for professors and even for private industry, Kaloyeros said.
"We needed to build a nano-mall," he said. "An Acropolis for innovation in nanotechnology."
In the mid-1990s, the state was looking to jump-start economic development, and, Kaloyeros said, Silver and others wanted to use the state's universities as a driver.
"In order for the university to become in the top 10, and be able to innovate in the fields of the 21st century, we needed to partner with government and industry," Kaloyeros said.
Companies including IBM were interested, and in just a dozen years, the college has added 2,500 jobs at its own campus, and drawn scores of spin-off businesses to the Albany area.
Spreading the wealth
With Albany's nanotechnology sector solidified, officials saw its potential as an anchor for similar growth in other parts of the state, Kaloyeros said.
Enter the Mohawk Valley, which since the start of the decade has attempted to land a computer chip fabrication plant to land at SUNYIT.
Kaloyeros credits Destito and Yeigh with pushing for SUNYIT, and the local business community with being receptive.
But Destito and Yeigh said they couldn't have pulled off the massive project without him.
Destito said she had spoken to Kaloyeros about local efforts to move in the same direction as Albany.
"It was Dr. Kaloyeros that guided me and Wolf Yeigh," she said.
"I think his intelligence is tremendous, and his foresight and vision into this field of expertise," she said.
Work is expected to go forward in 2010 to turn the SUNYIT nanotechnology into a reality by early in the next decade.
And as that occurs, keep your eye out for that Range Rover with the "NANOGEEK" license plate. It'll mean Kaloyeros is building his vision of nanotechnology right here in the Mohawk Valley.