Aug 9, 2002
Nanotechnology in the UK: what's going on?
"Any industry that fails to investigate the potential of nanotechnology, and to put in place its own strategy for dealing with it, is putting its business at risk." That's the stark warning from a recent report by the UK Advisory Group on Nanotechnology Applications for the UK government.
The report, entitled "New Dimensions of Manufacturing: a UK strategy for nanotechnology", is also fairly blunt about the state of the country's technology transfer in the field. "While the UK has excellent research credentials in nanoscience and nanotechnology, it lacks the co-ordinated national strategy for developing and applying the technology that characterises many of its leading industrial competitor nations," it states. "Partly as a result of this, much of UK industry has yet to respond to the challenge and to put in place its own R&D for nanotechnology."
The UK government is set to spend about £30 million on nanotechnology research this year. Despite this, the Advisory Group found that factors such as nanotechnology's multidisciplinary character, the fragmented nature of the country's effort, and the patchiness of mechanisms for transferring science from academia to industry have impeded industry's development of an awareness of nanotechnology.
"The high cost of experimenting with an unfamiliar technology covering a very wide range of disciplines makes it hard for many companies, even large ones, to establish what nanotechnology can do for them," says the report. "They tend to maintain a watching brief on academic research rather than embarking on their own exploratory developments."
Six of the best
The ten experts in the Advisory Group focused on six application areas where they reckoned the UK has research strength and industrial opportunities: electronics and communications; drug delivery systems; tissue engineering, medical implants and devices; nanomaterials, particularly at the bio/medical/functional interface; instrumentation, tooling and metrology; and sensors and actuators.
Having cast its warnings, the report recommends a number of strategies for "success in 2006". Chief of these is that the UK sets up at least two National Nanotechnology Fabrication Centres in order to "level the international playing field". These centres should each focus on a major area of nanotechnology, such as biotechnology applications, nanoparticles or electronics, offering world-class facilities where "individuals and firms can prototype and fabricate potential products based on the research carried out in universities and businesses".
Each of the centres would need about £25 million of capital and recurrent spend per year in 2003. The report says the aim should be to secure launch funding by the end of the year, and begin spending by April 2003.
Other recommendations are that the government sets up a UK Nanotechnology Applications Strategy Board by the autumn of 2002; provides "access portals" where people interested in the applications of nanotechnology can get in touch with relevant researchers; improves training; and promotes international collaborations.
Surveying the future
That's not the only nanotechnology report to emerge from the UK in recent weeks - venture capitalists 3i produced a white paper on "Building a successful nanotechnology company" in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Institute of Nanotechnology.
Based on a survey of nearly 100 nanotechnology scientists, investors and entrepreneurs, the study offers a snapshot of current thinking. "Nanotechnology is seen by some investors as nirvana, by others as a fool's paradise," the report waxes lyrically. "The truth is both more complex and more prosaic."
The survey found that the market force considered most likely to cause a backlash against nanotechnology is the notion that it can fix everything. Respondents concurred, meanwhile, that smart paints, pigments and coatings are the fastest adopters of nanotechnology and the most promising commercial area over the next five years. The study also reckons that enabling products - the tools and techniques that facilitate nanotechnology development and manufacturing - can expect immediate demand.
And now for the nitty gritty - what should a company do to be successful in nanotechnology? The basics, according to the white paper, are think commercially, evaluate market demand, diversify your revenue sources, consider your patent options carefully and pick a partner (or several). Easy when you know how.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of nanotechweb.org.