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Business Opportunities in Nanotechnology: Impacts of the Economic Slowdown

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, PhD

Glass half full
The economic slowdown has had its effects on high technology businesses—particularly those engaged in early stage nanotechnologies—impacting issues such as investment funding, workforce, supply chain, equipment, and revenues. Broader implications for the future economic growth and proliferation of emerging nanotechnologies and nanomanufacturing capabilities remain difficult to assess. Forecast scenarios range from slight corrections of previous growth trends to complete interruptions of new technology growth and implementation. While the long-term impact will likely be somewhere in between these extremes, there have been significant changes over the past two years in key enablers for early stage nanotechnologies that will impact the transition from fundamental research to scaled manufacturing of nano-enabled products. But the synopsis is not all negative: it turns out to be a good news, bad news scenario.

First, the bad news. It is anticipated that technology growth will remain slow for the immediate future (2-3 years) as large companies become leaner and more efficient, supply chains remain top heavy with decreased demand, new spending or delayed expansions, and, most importantly, corporate investors shelve new manufacturing lines that support emerging capabilities and infrastructure. The impact on research has also been felt as academic institutions receive less research funding from corporations that are forced to make difficult financial decisions. For start-up ventures and small businesses, their limited venture capital has become laden with greater scrutiny of markets and opportunities and shorter time-to-revenue demands to spin-up a technology business. For early stage technologies, angel investment substantially dissipated, thereby increasing the need for critical seed or gap funding. In essence, companies having sufficient cash reserves, access to funds, and supply chain availability will be able to ride out the storm; those without will struggle to stay above water.

Despite this dismal outlook, there are some positive notes that will render businesses stronger in the long run and likely provide the necessary boost for the scaled manufacturing of nanotechnologies.

The good news is that large corporations have adjusted the way they engage in research and development by proactively seeking consortia or partnership-based activities to continue progress along key industry roadmaps. As a result, there has been significant activity in mergers, acquisitions, and strategic partnering of nanotechnology companies, both at the regional and national levels. From the standpoint of fundamental research, both state and federal programs have injected significant new funding into core research programs at academic institutions, as well as joint small business-academic collaborations funded through SBIR/STTR programs. Additionally, large collaborative funding programs by several federal government agencies, including NIH, NIST (Technology Innovation program), and DOE (Energy Frontier Research Centers and Advanced Research Projects Agency  - Energy), have funded individual and collaborative projects focusing on critical national interests in manufacturing, renewable energy and infrastructure, and human health technologies, for which nanotechnology plays a leading role. As such, important grand challenges facing the U.S. economy in the areas of energy and environment, manufacturing, and water and critical materials resources, are being addressed in conjunction with an economic recovery plan that will potentially launch a new era in scientific discovery and transition to a new generation of nano-enabled products impacting key societal challenges.

New models of public-private partnerships are emerging from these scenarios that will provide long-term benefits to the proliferation of nanotechnologies and nanomanufacturing. These include regional and cross-industry consortia that involve academic laboratories, government research institutions, and small and large companies, with matching funds through state, regional, and federal sources. Many such organizations, with the help of state and regional government, or private foundation funds, have initated or increased gap fund programs to further the transitions from the research laboratory, as well as fostered strategic partnering to overcome the traditional valley of death scenarios in transitioning a technology to manufacturing. With appropriate management and operational approaches, these partnerships can further reduce the cycle time to manufacturing scale-up, thereby providing a rapid return on investment, and foster an environment coupling fundamental research in the nanosciences to new manufacturing infrastructure, effectively incorporating game changing methodologies to address age old problems.