In the 1967 movie The Graduate, the Next Big Thing that young Ben Braddock was advised to go into was "plastics." At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it's nanotechnology. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter - the same ratio as that between a glass marble and the planet Earth or the length a man's beard grows in the time it takes him to raise a shaver to his face. Nanotech involves the development of new materials, structures or objects up to 100 nanometers in size either by the "bottom up" approach in which atoms or molecules assemble themselves under chemical, electrical or other influences, or a "top-down" approach in which nanosized objects are cut down from larger entities. IT WON'T be science fiction if nanotech is one day able to produce tiny robots injected into the human bloodstream to filter out and kill cancer cells or repair diseased tissue, or if roof paint with nanoscale particles produce electricity from the sun's rays. These innovations will take many years to produce, but others are in the pipeline or already here. Israeli universities and industries are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in nanotech, and scientists in many disciplines have gotten together to find ways of applying their knowledge. Within the past three years, the number of nanotech research groups here has increased from 210 to 325, and the number of companies active in the field from 45 to 75, according to Dan Wilensky, head of the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative (INNI). Thus Israel felt ready to host its first international nanotechnology conference - called "NanoIsrael: Showcasing Israeli Nanotechnology" (nano-israel.org). The two-day event, to open on March 30 in Jerusalem's Inbal Hotel and organized by Kenes, will attract world-class experts, investors, businessmen and governmental representatives from Israel and abroad, and will include not only lectures and over 300 poster sessions but also a large exhibition. President Shimon Peres, an outspoken nanotechnology advocate, will be abroad during the conference but will appear in a video; Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is due to go on a trip to promote the capital, but will send greetings. The conference was initiated by Prof. Nava Swersky Sofer, co-chairman of its steering committee, to balance scientific innovation with business and investment opportunities in nanomaterials, nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, nanobio, nanomedicine, and energy and the environment. It is one of the last events in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations, and will focus on current research, commercial endeavors and future opportunities, said Swersky Sofer, who initiated an interview withThe Jerusalem Post recently along with half-a-dozen nanotech researchers and businessmen to preview the conference and explain the field. Conference participants from Israel and 15 other countries (including Germany, China and Japan) will be able to set up one-on-one meetings with others via the conference Web site, as collaborations are one of the main aims of the conference, which she hopes will become an annual event. "I am a layperson, not a nanotech expert," said Swersky Sofer, who in December completed a three-year term as president and CEO of Yissum, the Hebrew University's technology transfer company. The lawyer and master of business administration graduate stated: "The public must understand that nanotech is a totally new technology, not just something bigger and better than conventional technology. It is a paradigm shift, and it will produce things that were impossible to make before." THE INTERDISCIPLINARY conference is being held in cooperation with INNI (founded by TELEM, the National Infrastructures Forum for Research and Development) and the nanotechnology centers in all Israel's universities except the University of Haifa (which does not have a nano center); it is supported by the Jerusalem Development Authority, BioJerusalem and a number of major companies and organizations. Among the scheduled guests and speakers are Anatoly Chubais, formerly the minister in charge of Russia's privatization and currently CEO of the Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies; Prof. Paul Alivisatos, director of the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Matthew Nordan, President of Lux Research Inc.; Dr. Sass Somekh, chairman of Novellus Systems technical advisory board; Dr. Herbert Von Bose, director of EU Industrial Technologies Strategies; and Prof. Charles Lieber, a leading Harvard nanoscientist and founder of the nanotechnology startup company Nanosys. Nanotechnology wasn't even a word when the idea behind it was first suggested by the late great California Institute of Technology physicist Prof. Richard Feynman. At the end of 1959, he gave a lecture on the possibility of manipulating atoms and molecules in order to build new materials. The actual word was coined by a Japanese professor 35 years ago. The scanning tunneling microscope, atomic force microscope and other tools in the 1980s and 1990s launched nanotech on a practical level, and nine years ago the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was established to supervise federal R&D in the field. Corresponding with this progress, six Israeli universities - the Hebrew University (HU), Tel Aviv University (TAU), Weizmann Institute of Science, Technion, Bar-Ilan University (BIU) and Ben-Gurion University (BIU) - realized that nanoscience is well suited to academic research here. They jumped on the bandwagon, with help from philanthropists and government funding. Swersky Sofer said the national nanotech effort began with the investment of $280 million - one-third from government, a third from academia and the rest from donations. Prof. Uri Banin, a Hebrew University chemist and director of the university's Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology as well as co-chairman of the Jerusalem conference, noted atThe Post interview that the "triangular funding" is a new and successful model because all relevant factors are involved, and it attracts other potential donors. HU opened its nanotechnology unit back in 2001, he said. "As Israel is a small country, doing nanotech research and developing applications is a national effort. Even one person can have a very dramatic impact." "It also creates great cooperation among the universities - even jealousy, which can be a good thing," said Rafi Koriat, academic and industry liaison for INNI as well as founder and current CEO of Korel Business Ltd., former chairman of AI Medical Semiconductor who has many years of experience here and in the US with electro-optic, semiconductor and communication networks companies. "I regularly get e-mails from scientists abroad whose jobs have been cancelled due to the economic situation, but there are also those who have good jobs and want to join us here." Prof. Moshe Gottlieb, director of the Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology and the Minerva Center at BGU's chemical engineering department, noted that "in nanotech, the infrastructure is so expensive that no one could do it alone. In addition, nanotech can bring back talented young scientists who left Israel. "A few dozen of these returning Israelis or new immigrants came to Israel in just the past four or five years to work in nanotech," added Banin. "They came from Bell Labs, Oxford and other prestigious posts." Prof. Arie Zaban of BIU's chemistry department and head of the university's nano center added that Israeli universities now have some research infrastructure that isn't widely available abroad. Dr. Niles Fleischer, vice president of business development and vice president of product development at NanoMaterials, stressed that experts in his company want to "make connections at the conference and show off what we have to offer. The public don't know much about nanotech; some may even think it is not healthful. But everything we do is in accordance with international standards." NANOTECHNOLOGY can actually improve health, said Swersky Sofer. "The first nanotech drug ever produced is Doxil, the liposome-based medication modelled on the drug doxorubicin that was developed by biochemistry Prof. Yechezkel Barenholz of the HU Medical Faculty and Prof. Alberto Gabizon (formerly of Hadassah and currently head of oncology at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center). It is already taken by many women with ovarian cancer and has the potential to extend the lives of victims of other malignancies. Nicast Ltd. of Lod has developed medical devices made of electrospun nanofabric. Intraocular lenses after cataract surgery can help patients see better than conventional lenses and offer eyes protection against ultraviolet light. A spray called Nanolub that was developed in Israel and can be purchased around the world has been proven to extend the life of car engines, said Fleischer, whose company developed it. Nano also offers many applications using nanomagnets. Israeli nanotech researchers have developed improved fuel cell technology, enhanced proton conducting membranes and nanowires that make photovoltaic cells very efficient. Zaban noted that a Jerusalem company uses nanotech to print photovoltaic cells on glass. Other applications are faster computer chips, batteries with high energy density, friction-reducing boat-bottom coatings and gene splicing. The defense industries also use nanotech. Gottlieb noted that nanotech applications can protect the environment by turning byproduct fly ash into harmless material; others can reduce fires by adding noncombustible materials to carpet fibers. Nanotech can also be used to improve desalination membranes. The global economic slump could affect nano research and development, said Swersky Sofer, but "as it is long-term work, scientific development cannot be stopped due to this. We must have another five-year nanotech plan when the current one ends, and we need continuous state aid." "If there is no large-scale continuation of research and applications," concluded Banin, "much effort and many resources will be wasted. Nanotech will not only improve old things we are familiar with but create new things that were never seen before. It will save energy, release different types of light and produce new materials. The world after nanotech will be a different one than the world before nanotech." For a preview of the Next Big Thing, follow the Jerusalem conference.