While one can unquestionably expand a market by simply lowering the price, ideally we should look for products in markets which themselves are expected to grow rapidly. CAD and multi-media are two such markets in which we're currently positioned, and I believe that molecular modeling is one of the key enabling technologies of events about to unfold which may dwarf either of those markets. CAD, for example, is the key enabling technology for most of the changes underway in manufacturing and automation. It stands to reason that as those technologies expand from their initial small and expensive base, CAD will penetrate a much wider market. Indeed, this has happened. I think that much the same is true of molecular modeling.
First, let's step back from this ``computational chemistry'' stuff (which can't help but conjure up the thought of strange and pungent odours emerging from your floppy disc slot) and recall that molecular modeling is really nothing but mechanical CAD at the atomic level. What you do with such a system is assemble a part atom by atom, using all the normal CAD-like commands, view the model, then perform various kinds of analysis upon the model to study and predict its behaviour.
Working with atoms and quantum mechanics is a whole lot different than machined metal and Newton's laws, but what you're doing in the overall design cycle with such a system isn't all that different from the way an MCAE user exploits solid modeling, FEM, and postprocessing.
If molecular modeling seems intractably difficult computationally and arcane in its terminology, much the same could have been said 10 or 15 years ago about finite element analysis of nonlinear materials with integrated computation of mechanical and thermal properties. Today, that technology is being used to design tires for your car.
The reason we should be interested in ``atomic CAD'' is that, sooner or later, it's going to be the most explosively growing segment of the CAD business. Ever since the 1950's we've been making stuff smaller and smaller. Eventually this will end; when you hit the level of atoms, you can't go any further (this assertion may seem glib, but the argument in favour of it is very strong, but irrelevant to this discussion). But when you hit the atomic level, physics, chemistry, and engineering become unified into a single coherent field yet to be named ``Molecular Engineering.'' This will simply sweep chemistry, the study of atomic interactions, into the unification of solid state physics and engineering that has already occurred in the development of semiconductor device technology.
In talking about ``hitting the level of atoms'' I am not envisioning some far-out event in the mists of the twenty-first century. Several current technological developments such as the scanning tunneling microscope, the atomic force microscope, quantum well transistors, molecular optical memories, and protein engineering, all subjects of well-funded and aggressive research programs at places like IBM, DuPont, Bell Labs, and Texas Instruments, are already reaching this level. The journal Science inaugurated their new series of survey articles, ``Science in the 1990s'' with a review of atomic-level technologies and predicted the consequences would be at the heart of many scientific and technological developments in the next 10 years. When this really begins to roll, being positioned as a leader in atomic level CAD is going to be worth a great deal, indeed.
But there's no need to lose money until this happens, or even if it never does. The beauty of molecular modeling is that it is already a viable business, one in which we can apply all the same strategies of penetrating education, broadening the market, and riding the curve of increased hardware power just as we did with AutoCAD. Every step we take, and every success we have in this developmental period will just put us in a better position for the time when molecular engineering explodes into exponential growth in the manner integrated circuits and microprocessors did in the 1970s and 1980s. And if it never happens, then we'll still be at the centre of the rapidly growing biotechnology market, where molecular modeling is already essential.
Editor: John Walker