Taking The NanoPulse -- Collaborative Value Chains

Sept. 1, 2006
What will it take for the U.S. to mine the full potential of nanotechnology?

We talked last month about "Nano by the Numbers," a quick look at the state of the American nanotechnology industry as painted by the National Council on Manufacturing. (Read the full report online at www.ncms.org.) We explored the topline results of their survey of over 6000 executives in leading U.S. organizations with leadership, technology or R&D responsibility about nanotechnologies future. Now, let's take a closer look at recommendations coming out of those findings.

The core challenge is that nanotechnology touches on so many fields of science, requiring unprecedented collaboration, new measurement tools, unfamiliar manufacturing capabilities and answers to questions about scalability, processing costs, health and environmental safeguards. Is it any wonder that few organizations have the vertical integration or alliances to make the comprehensive progress needed for commercialization?

The report begins with the recommendation that the industry tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that's brought it this far, working harder at what they call collaborative value chains. That is, they suggest that start-ups partner with large manufacturers and academic researchers, to form tighter links between research, product development and market needs. Focus projects could include development of new equipment and processes that will make nanotech more aligned with real-world manufacturing.

To fuel these partnerships, a more collegial approach to intellectual property must be part of that picture. Less protectionism and more collaboration will more quickly build the shared foundation upon which many future successes can be built.

It's a simple enough idea in theory, but we all recognize that's it's a true paradigm shift in the way the world operates today. So how do we take the first step, start walking and then run toward the goals? The far-reaching possibilities of nanotechnology suggest that government-led public-private collaboration is a crucial -- and wise -- investment of our Federal resources. In fact, it's a necessity if the science -- and America's strength in it -- is to reach full potential.

How would it work? Start with Federal funding of work in basic science that benefits all players. That includes research on environmental and health issues to help overcome any industry or consumer concerns about risk, as well as creating a bedrock for regulatory processes. The report authors also recommend continuing government investment in infrastructure for research. Eliminating the burden of start-up costs for research opens the door for faster progress.

To assure the most optimum return on investment, the report suggests that National priorities be set for near-term nanotechnology efforts and then an incentive program be developed to accelerate progress on the chosen paths. The researchers topics echo those put forward by The Foresight Nanotechnology Institute and others, including healthcare and pharmaceuticals, energy resources, environmental protection and enhanced information technology, among others.

Here are suggestions for how those programs might work. Start with incentives that reward long-term investment in nanotechnology, providing start-ups with sustenance through "the valley of death" in funding and giving large companies a reason to be a leader instead of a follower. Monies already invested in the National Labs created through the National Nanotechnology Initiative or other academic programs could provide a base for strategic alliances for all players.

The guidelines of research grants could be tweaked to encourage projects that match pure science with economic goals of industrial partners. There's even a suggestion to consider rewarding the patient, good faith of early-investing companies with royalty-free licenses for work done on their behalf. In addition, academic organizations can benefit the entire field by pursuing research that clarifies and educates on important issues such as nanotechnology environmental and safety topics. That same work can help guide regulatory development and sensible legal reform to prevent frivolous lawsuits that hobble nanotechnology's development.

State governments and regional economic development organizations can align their programs with the Federal efforts to build additional synergy. At the highest level, that could include offering matching funds to Federal programs or seed money for complementary ones. Even at a basic level, States can vigorously promote their resources to serve as incubators for companies, as well as facilitating a trained nano-workforce and next-generation nano-entrepreneurs.

Nanotechnology's high-value additions for today's and tomorrow's products are waiting for new and reinvented collaborative value chains. Which one will you join?

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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