Looking back over the past 24 months, what have been the highlights from a nanotechnology perspective?

Organizations across the state have continued to make several significant advances related to nanotechnology. The diverse innovation ecosystem they are building is a key reason the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) recently ranked North Carolina the eighth highest state and Raleigh the fourth highest metro area in nanotechnology activity.

John Hardin
John Hardin

For example, building on the state’s strengths in life sciences, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center established the Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology (COIN) with a $100,000 planning grant in 2007 and has been moving it forward with a $2.5 million Phase II grant since 2009. COIN's vision is to play a significant role in making North Carolina a leader in nanobiotechnology and related new product innovation and entrepreneurship. Headquartered in the Research Triangle region, COIN operates statewide with an emphasis on clusters of nanobiotechnology assets and activity within the Charlotte, Piedmont Triad, and Research Triangle metro areas. COIN focuses on leveraging and connecting public and private sector organizations focused on nanobiotechnology.

In the Piedmont Triad region, which includes the cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, the Piedmont Triad Partnership (PTP) is leading a regional initiative to stimulate economic development efforts in nanotechnology and other areas. Three universities are at the forefront of the Piedmont Triad's nanotechnology efforts: North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T), the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), and Wake Forest University.

The cornerstone of the Triad's nanotech initiative is the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN) in Greensboro, a partnership between NC A&T and UNCG. The JSNN's degree programs will include Masters and PhD degrees in nanoscience, and plans are in place to develop degree programs in nanoengineering as well.

The JSNN's infrastructure, scheduled for completion in mid 2012, will feature a 100,000-plus-square-foot research facility at the 75-acre Gateway University Research Park. Research strengths in nanobiology, nanometrology, nanomaterials, and nanobioelectronics will help attract companies to the region and provide leverage to its industrial partners.

In 2008, the National Science Foundation awarded NC A&T an Engineering Research Center (ERC) grant to establish the Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials. As one of only five ERC awards in 2008, the grant to A&T marks the first time that a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) has been the lead institution of an ERC. The Center, whose funding is $18 million for the initial five years, will conduct research in the areas of biomedical engineering and nano-bio applications. It also has partnerships with a broad range of North Carolina organizations devoted to entrepreneurship and small business development.

Wake Forest's Center has become an economic catalyst

At Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, research at its Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials has focused on applications of nano-materials and nano-engineered structures in organic electronics/photonics, bio-medical technologies, and exotic optical materials. Wake Forest's Center has become an economic catalyst, with two spinoff companies: FiberCell, which is commercializing patented fibre-based solar cell technology; and PureLux, which uses carbon nanotubes and phosphors to make lighting devices that are 10 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs and three times more efficient than fluorescents.

These companies and others like it will need well-trained workers. Recognizing this need, Forsyth Technical Community College, just a few miles away from Wake Forest, is currently the only community college in the Southeast offering a nanotechnology program. The Forsyth program offers certificates and associate degrees and prepares its graduates for positions in engineering, manufacturing and/or medical research development.

Another commercial success of particular note is Liquidia Technologies, based in Research Triangle Park. Utilizing a novel technology known as the PRINT® platform, Liquidia is developing particle-based vaccines and therapeutics for improved delivery of small molecule and biological cargos. By designing highly specific particles that deliver therapies to an intended target, Liquidia is uncovering ways to optimize the safety and efficacy of vaccines and therapeutics. Liquidia recently received $25 million in Series C financing to accelerate the development and commercialization of its PRINT platform.

Following the global economic crisis, many countries are now looking at the high-technology sector with renewed interest and hoping that activity in this area will jumpstart economic growth. Have you noticed an upswing in the number of people wanting to know more about NC nanotechnology, or has it been a challenge to maintain the momentum generated in earlier years?

Interest in nanotechnology remains as strong as ever, but it manifests itself differently and is more focused than in the early part of the decade. After the National Nanotechnology Initiative passed in 2003, there was a widespread surge of conferences and media stories focused on nanotechnology. But in recent years, the "buzz" surrounding nanotech has died down and the number of nanotech-focused events and news stories has also decreased.

Interest in nanotechnology remains as strong as ever, but it manifests itself differently and is more focused than in the early part of the decade

It would be easy to equate this shifting public attention with a lack of momentum or promise for nanotech. But the more likely explanation is the public's fragmented and fleeting attention span and desire for immediate results. Because nanotech is broad and complicated, the payoffs are more likely to be long-term than immediate. Realizing those payoffs requires an in-depth understanding of nanotechnology's complex phenomena and implications which, in turn, requires long-term, focused attention.

That is why North Carolina researchers and companies working with nanotechnology are continuing to pursue their efforts as vigorously as ever and in greater numbers. Whereas North Carolina had approximately 60 companies and 30 university research centers working with nanotechnology in 2008, it now has at least 15 more companies and four more university centers focused on nanotechnology.

Our office continues to receive frequent inquiries about nanotechnology from several sources, including the public, companies, researchers, and the media. We expect these inquiries to increase even more as nanotechnology spreads throughout the economy. But we've also noticed an increasing number of inquiries about the environmental, health, and safety risks of nanotech. The public is realizing that a long-term commitment to nanotechnology-based economic development should include a unified approach to managing these risks as more nano-enabled products and materials enter the consumer market.

In North Carolina, several groups, including Duke University's Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology, NC State University’s Center for Chemical Toxicology Research and Pharmacokinetics, and the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative are conducting pioneering research and developing recommendations for managing the potential environmental and health impacts of nano-enabled products.

The 2010 conference program had a strong business focus, with sessions on moving from the lab to the market place and on how nanotech adds value to products. Which sectors stand out in terms of commercialization?

It is difficult to predict which sectors will have the most nanotech commercialization activity. Several factors impact commercialization. Moreover, success may depend as much on the way nanotechnology is developed and utilized as on the sector that utilizes it.

Thus, in focusing on commercialization, the most recent North Carolina nanotechnology conference highlighted four broad areas that are important to the state and clearly will be impacted by nanotechnology: nanobio/nanomedicine, military/defense, safety/environment and energy/green economy. Within these areas, the conference identified organizations that are playing a significant role in developing the state's commercial activities related to nanotech. This approach is designed to engage a wide variety of individuals and organizations around the goal of further strengthening North Carolina's innovation ecosystem around nanotechnology.

Looking ahead, what's in the pipeline?

We've already begun plans on next year's North Carolina Nanotechnology Commercialization Conference. Building on the success of previous two conferences — held in Raleigh and Greensboro — next year's conference will be in Charlotte with support from area organizations such as the Charlotte Research Institute and UNC Charlotte's Nanoscale Science PhD program.

The conference will continue its theme of innovation, partnerships, and commercialization, all in the context of nanotechnology. Additional information will be available soon at www.ncscitech.com/ncncc and www.ncnanotechnology.com.