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New Challenges Face Nanotechnology Investments to Simultaneously Stimulate Research and Innovation

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, Ph.D.

Business Jigzaw
At a time when both public and private stakeholders are evaluating the impact of the last decades’ investments in nanotechnology research and development, numerous indicators provide a positive outlook for both short and long term strategies for future investments. The indicators and data providing a positive outlook for increased future opportunities are predominantly derived from the recent manufacturing report on business by the Institute of Supply Management (ISM, December 2010). From this report, the broad picture indicates that most manufacturing industry sectors have experienced some and anticipate further expansion as forecast by the purchasing managers index (PMI).

The PMI is a composite index of five "sub-indicators," which are extracted through surveys to more than 400 purchasing managers from around the country, chosen for their geographic and industry diversification benefits. The five sub-indexes are given specific weightings in areas including production level, new orders, supplier deliveries, inventories, and employment level. While nanomanufacturing is dispersed throughout the industry sectors surveyed, the trends do translate to effective growth and increased opportunities for companies involved in nanotechnology-enabled products.

Simultaneously, government, academic, and private stakeholders are assessing models and strategies for future investments in nanotechnology in order to provide sustainable growth and economic impact. In part, this is due to the fact that, while the U.S. investment under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has clearly transformed nanoscience research over the past decade, innovation and commercialization has not kept pace.  New policy and organizational strategies are clearly warranted to foster growth in innovation, and effectively facilitate the transition from laboratory science to commercialization. The present economic and manufacturing outlook may present an opportunity to accelerate the impact of public investment and further leverage private investment. The challenge lies in utilizing public resources effectively to stimulate research, innovation, and commercialization. Possible approaches to accomplish this were elucidated at the recent Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NSE) Grantees Conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which provided overview presentations by grantees on topics including emerging technologies, industry outreach, economic impact, societal outcomes, technology transfer, and regional nano-Hubs. Propositions to effectively deploy public resources for maximum impact in both research and innovation included facilitating public-private/research-industry partnerships, providing new focus on translational research, exploring the demand-side for user-led and societally-focused innovation, working with start-up companies as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and leveraging the reach of  global nano supply-chains and networks.

In establishing or expanding upon these concepts, the societal benefits will be amplified by an already resurging economic outlook, thereby providing additional opportunity for sustainable growth within numerous industry sectors. Industry will be impacted as new paradigms are established throughout the nanomanufacturing value chain as exemplified by existing trends in which SMEs and large companies are positioning themselves as suppliers of raw nanomaterials, nano-intermediates, or finished nano-products. As companies assess the potential market landscape, multiple factors influence how they decide to position themselves within the value-chain, where to locate, and how to leverage the science and technology base that has been established through, for example, the NNI federal investments. The result has been the emergence of several nanotechnology clusters throughout the U.S., generally in proximity to major research centers. Nanoscience facilities and equipment can best benefit technology development when they are conveniently located and easy to use by businesses. Such access is especially important to the SMEs that are critical for early stage commercialization. State and regional economic development resources can serve as “high tech extension” agents—now supported by several states, including but not limited to Oregon (ONAMI), Pennsylvania (PA Nano Center), and New York (Albany NanoTech—providing a means to encourage and facilitate effective research and technology transfer.

Now, the opportunity is at hand to parlay these successful concepts to the next level of nanomanufacturing infrastructure, where new jobs and sustainable industries are created to translate emerging research from academia. In examining these opportunities, it is clear that numerous models are necessary; for example, regional hubs may provide the most benefit in some locations, while state and local clusters may focus on specific industry and resource availability. Regardless of the strategy, it does appear that future public investment will be scrutinized further through mandates of increased return on investment as evidenced by economic and societal impact. Successful implementation of these mandates may be made possible as strategies evolve to enact support for nanotechnology that combines scientific merit with overall societal impact based on credible business models that have emerged through assessment of the last decade of NNI investment. The NNN continues to seek input from affiliates and stakeholders exemplifying these models broadly, or with regard to specific technology and industry sectors.

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