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Nanomanufacturing Goals for the National Nanotechnology Initiative: Breaking Down the NNI Strategic Plan 2014

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, Ph.D.

As we review the various reports that have been made available to the public over the past few years regarding the federal investment in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), we continue to observe key language that supports the nanomanufacturing community broadly. An example is the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which in their 2012 Assessment of the NNI cited the need for increased investment for nanomanufacturing and commercialization related activities. More recently, the 2014 NNI Strategic Plan provides a roadmap for key steps to support and foster these activities. Excerpts from this report describe the key goals relevant to nanomanufacturing as follows;

Goal 2: Foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit.

2.2. Increase focus on nanotechnology-based commercialization and related support for public–private partnerships.
2.2.1. Sustain successful initiatives and expand the number of public–private partnerships.
2.2.2. Evaluate and disseminate information on best practices to advance commercialization of U.S.-derived nanotechnologies.
2.2.3. Support U.S. industry in the development of technology “roadmaps” or R&D plans in support of public–private partnerships.
2.2.4. Promote development of robust, scalable nanomanufacturing methods with sufficient precision to facilitate commercialization.

Reading the report further describes the activities of the NNI sub-committees to engage industry and agencies to explore ways to improve technology transfer, collaborative opportunities, and public-private partnerships in order to achieve these objectives. Additionally, the strategy intersects the broader topic of advanced manufacturing, of which nanomanufacturing is certainly a subset. While the strategic plan specifically mentions an exemplar public-private partnership, the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI), it comes up short in providing targeted recommendations for translation of less mature nanomanufacturing technologies through public-private partnerships that support emerging market opportunities. As an example, Goal 2.2.1 refers to sustaining successful initiatives and expanding the number of public-private partnerships. A key challenge has been transitioning investments in fundamental research centers to more applied technology development programs. This is analogous to the proverbial "Valley of Death" for the commercialization of technology, where additional targeted investment can advance technology past the critical point wherein industry will more readily adopt these innovations. Several federal agencies, supported by state and regional initiatives, have programs that begin to address these scenarios, for example, the NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Centers (NERCs), that mandate industry membership or partnership within the centers. While this approach could prove an effective means to transition fundamental research initiatives to more applied or engineered research, while simultaneously building industry support though private investment and resources, it essential to involve significant industry support of both emerging and mature technologies in order to bridge this investment gap. Such “skin-in-the-game” requirements garner industry participation in a meaningful and concrete manner that meets the requirements for effective technology development and transfer, and ultimately accelerates the path to commercialization, while embracing the development of higher risk innovations in a sustainable way (Goal 2.2.4 above). The NNN supports these concepts that establish criteria and opportunities for the merging and sustainment of existing initiatives, while impacting the objectives towards broader national initiatives. In addition, fostering significant industry support of robust, scalable nanomanufacturing methods will be essential to successfully achieving these key goals through adoption of versatile public-private partnership models, and ultimately establishing a community of practice to facilitate the necessary ecosystem to successfully transition emerging nanomanufacturing research to practical, commercial platforms.

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