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U.S. funds risky tech schemes

The U.S. Department of Commerce announces grants to companies working on "high-risk, high-yield" technologies that are considered too hot for venture capital companies to handle.

Bucking a venture capital market unusually averse to risk and practically allergic to high tech, the U.S. government last week announced grants to companies working on "high-risk, high-payoff" technologies.

The grants by the Advanced Technology Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, itself a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, covered technologies devoted to stroke therapy robotics and reengineering E. coli metabolism. But several grants benefited companies specifically working on computer and computer network projects. These include:

• Agility Communications, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based maker of optical network components, which won a grant of $2 million from NIST toward its $3 million, three-year project to create a chip that would integrate an optical amplifier, a high-speed optical modulator and a widely tunable laser.

"The availability of widely tunable lasers, capable of tuning wavelengths on many tens of data channels, will reduce equipment and operating costs and thereby enhance deployment of cost-effective fiber-optic systems," wrote NIST in announcing the grant. "Current networks use fixed-wavelength lasers...Overall, the new technology should strengthen U.S. telecommunications and optical networking industries and their competitiveness in the worldwide opto-electronics market."

• Mobile Systems Verification, a Chicago company working on automated testing tools for wireless applications, won a $2 million grant to fund nearly its entire two-year project to create an Advanced Mobile Application Testing Environment (AMATE), designed to make wireless communications more reliable and effective by simulating users of wireless devices by the millions.

"Without ATP funding, the project could not proceed because it involves too much risk for private investors and will require more resources than the small company can provide on its own," NIST wrote. "AMATE could lead to more reliable mobile applications, may reduce wireless application errors by as much as 50 percent, and could increase productivity associated with mobile application development."

• RAPT Industries, a start-up based in Livermore, Calif., took in $2 million toward a $3.5 million project designed to advance its work on a process for etching and polishing optical and semiconductor materials faster than currently available technologies.

• Valaran, a Princeton, N.J., provider of business process and network integration software, won a $2 million grant to speed its work on software that will help mobile communications flow on networks with "low or unpredictable bandwidth" using Jini Network Technology. That technology, developed by Sun Microsystems for use in consumer electronics, finds itself increasingly used for connecting diverse and complex business applications.

As NIST said in announcing the Mobile Systems Verification grant, the awards come at a period of increasingly stringent parsimony on the part of private investors. A joint report by Ernst & Young and VentureOne, released in late April, showed that investments in high-tech ventures declined through the first quarter of the year--though the report found some gains in information services and semiconductors.