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Lawyers are salivating over a bill that will pump $3.6 billion into developing the nanotechnology industry over the next four years. Late last week, Congress cleared the “21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act,” and the measure is now headed for President Bush, who is expected to sign it. “This is the first time an actual bill authorizes money to focus on the nanotechnology industry,” said Tom Thomas, co-chair of Pillsbury Winthrop’s nanotechnology practice group. “It also sets up a program or structure that will provide for cooperation among all entities — federal agencies, labs, the private sector and state agencies.” As for law-firm interest in the bill, Thomas said, “Anything generally good for developing technology is good for technology firms.” Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating structures at the nanometer scale — one-billionth of a meter — and building things one atom at a time. In comments on the Senate floor earlier this month, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., rattled off several areas of nanotechnology development: iron nanoparticles in the cleanup of Superfund sites; nanometer-size minerals for production of gasoline from crude oil; and nanolasers for super-precision surgery. “There’s a pie-in-the-sky feeling to it — that we can do anything with nanotechnology,” said Matthew Rainey, co-chair of Howrey Simon Arnold & White’s nanotechnology practice. “It’s difficult to see what the big breakthroughs will be but every scientist expects there to be breakthroughs.” Rainey said the field emerged in the 1980s with the creation of nanotechnology tools, including the scanning tunneling microscope; buckyballs, which are spheres of carbon; and carbon nanotubes, sheets of carbon wrapped in a tube. It’s only been in recent years that law firms have jumped into the space. Howrey Simon, for example, launched its 20-lawyer practice in February. Its clients include startups like Emeryville, Calif.-based Nanomix Inc., which is developing carbon nanotubes for chemical sensing, and major companies like DaimlerChrysler AG, which has its own nanotechnology lab. Pillsbury Winthrop initiated its nanotechnology practice in 1998, and the group now has 20 to 25 lawyers. Its clients include Integrated Nanosystems and Atomic Scale Designs, both based in Silicon Valley. Other firms with a nanotechnology group include Morrison & Foerster and intellectual property firms Burns, Doane, Swecker & Mathis and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. The new nanotechnology legislation would provide $3.63 billion for fiscal years 2005 through 2008 to several agencies — including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and National Aeronautics and Space Administration — to establish nanotechnology research centers and fund research grants. This influx of research money will help facilitate licensing “and help startup companies to be funded by venture capitalists,” Thomas said. And that, of course, means more work for lawyers.

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