Skip to content Skip to navigation

Targeted Grand Challenges: A Turning Point for the National Nanotechnology Initiative

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, Ph.D.

The conclusions and recommendations by the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) in the fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has determined that a turning point has been reached. In a future vision wherein the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale enables a revolution in technology providing significant societal and economic benefit, the Federal Government must transition its activities toward facilitating commercialization. As such, PCAST recommends a strategy of targeting specific nanotechnology Grand Challenges though a framework partnership between the public and private sector that would effectively drive scientific advances to revolutionary commercialized products.

Capturing excerpts of the strongly focused language in the report;

…the primary conclusion of the 2014 PCAST review is that the U.S. will only be able to claim the rewards that come from investing in nanotechnology research and sustaining an overarching Federal initiative if the Federal interagency process, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the agencies themselves transition their nanotechnology programmatic efforts beyond supporting and reporting on basic and applied research and toward building program, coordination, and leadership frameworks for translating the technologies into commercial products.

These observations and recommendations are highly welcomed throughout the nanomanufacturing community as stakeholders seek to develop new approaches and models to transition the gap for translating the discoveries of S&T investments to commercially viable nano-enabled products to realize the NNI’s vision. Grand Challenges target specific technical goals while incorporating the active management needed to accomplish them, such an approach can provide the necessary framework for commercialization opportunities to mature. The report cited example Grand Challenges for nanotechnology including nano-enabled desalination of seawater to solve the emerging water crisis, reducing global greenhouse emissions with nano-enabled solid-state refrigeration, creating a forefront of manufacturing through nano-3D printing, and developing a nanoscale therapeutic for at least one major cancer.

The PCAST emphasized their belief that the recommendation contained in the 2014 review, in particular the enhanced focus on the transition to commercialization, the implementation of the Grand Challenges framework, and more aggressive leadership, were essential for a successful NNI 2.0 for the coming decade.

In further support of the nanomanufacturing community, the PCAST report recommended at least one Grand Challenge should contain program elements aimed at manufacturing challenges specific to that focus area. In particular, the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee should work with the Federal agencies to define potential Manufacturing Innovation Institutes dedicated to nanoscience and nanotechnology as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) program. As the challenges in manufacturing are likely to impede commercializing advanced nanomaterials, nanomedicine, and other nanotechnologies unless the Federal Government addresses the valley of death, which involves the need for nanofabrication facilities to create high volumes of nanotechnology product.

Citing the lack of progress against the recommendations from the 2012 assessment , the 2014 provides directed recommendations towards achieving the NNI’s vision, including creating and executing a process to engage research, development, and industrial stakeholders in the identification and selection of Grand Challenges on an ongoing basis.

Additional recommendations in the report targeted alleviating key constraints on nanotechnology commercialization with particular on enhancement of the nanotechnology ecosystem. One primary constraint, which the NNN has supported for some time, is Investment in nanofabrication facilities. As the commercialization of nanotechnology innovations depends heavily on the successful development of nanofabrication and nanomanufacturing procedures, few nanomanufacturing user facilities are accessible for developing production procedures, scaling up volumes of nanomaterial for research, or generating commercial supply. The lack of such an ecosystem in the absence of these facilities requires start‐ups to assume significant up‐front financial risk in developing in‐house facilities to support company operations. A versatile network of facilities employing both established and emerging nanomanufacturing tools and expertise would accelerate the innovation pipeline for translational nanotechnology R&D. The second key constraint cited was the need for Comprehensive nanotechnology EHS standards, which additionally would provide clear protocols with respect to risk assessment and regulatory landscape for nano-enabled product development.

Along with the key constraints cited above, the report discussed several general constraints to nanotechnology commercialization including:

  • The need to train first-time academic entrepreneurs in moving a technical innovation out of the research laboratory into a small company;
  • Communication among stakeholders-Successful academic investigators understand the technical landscape and the potential value of their work, but they may not know how their innovations might address strategic gaps at a large technology company or could be translated into a commercial success. A company R&D director, conversely, might know little about a high-value technology being developed in an academic laboratory. Additional venues are needed to bring together academic entrepreneurs, VCs, industry, relevant Government agencies, and other stakeholders;
  • Venture capital for new entrepreneurs
  • Peer review of high-risk, high-return ideas

In support of NNI activities addressing these constraints, the PCAST report cited the efforts of the National Nanomanufacturing Network, emphasizing the NSF funding of the four Nano Science and Engineering Research Centers (NSECs) that focus on nanomanufacturing (two centers will retire in 2014 and the other two will retire in 2015 and 2016), which with our National Lab partners at NIST and DOE, along with other affiliates and stakeholders, share information, organize annual nanomanufacturing conferences and workshops, and establish a cross cutting community of practice.