Worth Repeating: Nano-Risks: A Big Need for a Little Testing

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The EPA must act swiftly to evaluate the possible health risks of nanotechnology

A decade ago the great worry about nanotechnology was that it could quite literally destroy the planet. As Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy warned in his essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” self-assembling nanobots could potentially spread out of our control (Mis-)programmed to replicate ad infinitum, these subsentient bots would spread across the landscape as a gray goo of devastation, consuming the earth and every unlucky creature who called it home.

Nowadays we can only wish that our planet-dooming scenarios were so far-fetched. Our existential worries revolve around the all too immediate problems of global warming and disease, and nanotechnology—incorporated into improved solar panels, wind turbines or drug delivery mechanisms—could, if anything, emerge as an important tool to fight these threats.

Yet like any new technology, nanomaterials carry with them potential both for good and for harm. The most salient worries concern not a gray goo apocalypse but rather the more prosaic and likely possibility that some of these novel materials may turn out to be hazardous to our health or the environment. Because ordinary materials display unique properties at the nanoscale, the nanometer-size bits of a seemingly benign material might turn out to be noxious. As John D. Young and Jan Martel report in “The Rise and Fall of Nanobacteria,” even naturally occurring nanoparticulates can have an deleterious effect on the human body. If natural nanoparticulates can harm us, we would be wise to carefully consider the possible actions of engineered nanomaterials. The size of nanoparticles also means that they can more readily escape into the environment and infiltrate deep into internal organs such as the lungs and liver. Adding to the concern, each nanomaterial is unique. Although researchers have conducted a number of studies on the health risks of individual materials, this scattershot approach cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the hazards—quantitative data on what materials, in what concentrations, affect the body over what timescales.

In response to this uncertainty, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a grand research strategy to study the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials, a welcome step that many have been advocating for years. We hope that the program will help build a robust database that will give policy makers and the public the facts needed to understand the possible health risks that specific nanomaterials might create. And although it would be unwise to rush careful research efforts, speed is paramount. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials are available in the U.S., a number that is quickly growing.

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Open-Source A.W.S.: Creating a Thousand Clouds

Eucalyptus cloud architecture

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The idea of these free versions is to create smaller versions of the cloud

Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing service of Amazon.com, has sparked a boom in powerful and flexible computing over the Internet. Now the same technology is entering the corporate mainstream, through open-source cloud computing.

In the past few years, companies and organizations like Open Nebula; the Open Stack alliance; Cloud.com, which is part of Citrix; and Eucalyptus have been offering various forms of the kind of software that works inside A.W.S.

The idea of these free versions is to create smaller versions of the cloud, so people can do more with the computers in their own homes, institutions and businesses. If the company is big enough to have lots of partners, employees, and strong engineering talent, its open source cloud could amount to a supercomputer with lots of different capabilities, on the cheap.

Like many open source projects, which depend on a core of engineers creating and then publicly releasing lots of complex software for free, there are a range of opinions about how to interact with the profit-making giants. Of all the versions, perhaps the most successful, as well as the friendliest to Amazon, is Eucalyptus, which easily shares data and computing chores with A.W.S. The idea is to give A.W.S. an ally in the open source world, giving customers of either Eucalyptus or A.W.S. the ability to move jobs on or off the clouds they own, depending on workload needs and internal security policies.

“Like Amazon or not, they are the de facto standard for cloud,” says Marten Mickos, the chief executive of Eucalyptus. “It’s just that not everyone wants it. Some people in open source think it is immoral to make a profit. I don’t.” Mr. Mickos was previously the head of MySQL, an open source database company that was purchased by Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle) in 2008 for $1 billion.

Eucalyptus originated with a project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but is clearly intended to be a profit-making business. Its customers include Puma, Sony, and the federal Department of Agriculture, and it counts over 25,000 clouds running on its software worldwide. Eucalyptus runs for free when customers use open source virtualization software, necessary for cloud computing, like Xen and KVM. When customers use the more popular products from VMWare, they must use Eucalyptus’s subscription product, which costs $2,000 per server a year.

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Open Source as a Model for Business Is Elusive

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In many ways, MySQL embodies the ideals of the populist software movement known as open source, in which a program’s creator releases it to the world free of charge, and legions of volunteers contribute improvements that are also freely shared.

The start-up company came out of nowhere, building a database application beloved by vibrant, young Internet companies. Logging in from homes scattered around the globe, its workers seemed more a part of a virtual commune than a corporate monolith, and they relished taking on proprietary software giants like Microsoft.

But like most open-source companies, MySQL’s sales, tied to support deals, never matched the astronomical number of downloads for its product, about 60,000 a day. In January 2008, the founders decided to sell the company for $1 billion to Sun Microsystems. And this year, Sun agreed to sell itself to Oracle, which makes database software aimed at larger companies and tougher jobs, for $7.4 billion.

Now, disagreement over the value of MySQL — both as a stand-alone entity and as part of a big company — lies at the heart of a bitter public battle between Oracle and the European Union over the Sun acquisition. The fight illuminates a larger truth about open-source companies: their societal and strategic importance far exceeds their financial value as operating businesses.

European regulators view MySQL as sort of a database of the people, a low-cost alternative to Oracle’s costly proprietary products. The regulators worry that Oracle may stop improving MySQL in favor of protecting its core traditional products, and customers will lose an important option in the database market.

Read more . . .

  • Open source has not reached apex (slumpedoverkeyboarddead.com)
  • EU rebuffs Oracle’s criticism of Sun merger investigation (infoworld.com)
  • MySQL daddy backs EU’s Snoracle probe (theregister.co.uk)
  • Regulators square off over Oracle-Sun (guardian.co.uk)
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6 Months, $90,000 and (Maybe) a Great Idea

A view of downtown San Jose, the self-proclaim...
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THE print hanging behind the receptionist’s desk at Foundation Capital screams,

“Our greatest thrill is to loan you money” — in chunky, capitalized red letters. That’s encouraging news for Michael Bauer, because he wants money and has put himself in a prime position to get it.

Mr. Bauer has set up shop on the second floor of Foundation Capital’s offices here to pursue his dream of creating an energy company from scratch. He pays no rent to operate out of the building, which is designed to evoke a Mediterranean villa. And he’s free to enjoy all the trappings of this venture capital firm, including its ample parking, woodsy surroundings and outdoor patio.

Mr. Bauer has won these cozy environs through a new role as an “entrepreneur in residence.” This coveted position, called an E.I.R. in Silicon Valley shorthand, is emblematic of the valley’s economy of ideas. Most E.I.R.’s receive a monthly stipend of up to $15,000 to sit and think for about six months. In return, the venture capital firm usually gets the first shot at financing the idea that emerges from this meditation.

“The E.I.R. takes out some of the risk because they are known quantities,” said Adam Grosser, a partner at Foundation Capital. “They have a track record of success and a proven ability to disrupt a market with their ideas.”

Venture capital firms have been struggling to find a company that will make them not just rich, but fabulously rich. They dream about investing in the next Intel, Apple, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo or Google. But after Google appeared in 1998, the hunt to find the next superprofitable household name stalled. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have garnered plenty of attention but have yet to strike on a business model capable of sending an I.P.O. into the stratosphere. Ten-year returns for the venture capital industry have sunk to 8.4 percent, annualized, in the decade ended last Sept. 30, from 40.2 percent in the 10 years ended Sept. 30, 2008, a number inflated by the spectacular success of Google and other dot-com companies at the beginning of that period.

The entrepreneur-in-residence model has gained prominence as a calculated way for a venture capital firm to nurture a successful company into being and to increase the odds of solid returns. The firms often tap someone who has successfully started and sold a start-up, hoping that lightning will strike twice.

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