Already a software and biotech hub, Bangalore now hopes to be a world-class nanotechnology centre

Already the home for India’s leading software and biotech firms, Bangalore is now aiming to attract businesses in another emerging area: nanotechnology. 

On 22 August, Karnataka state science and technology minister Ramachandra Gowda announced plans to set up India’s first ’nanopark’ in the outskirts of Bangalore and vowed to make it a hub for nanotechnology activities in the country.

’We are inviting industries in India and abroad with open arms to set up their units in our new park,’ Mysore Vidyashankar, secretary for the state science department, told Chemistry World. ’They are free to build research and development labs or production facilities, and our government is here to help.’

The 15-acre dedicated nanopark will be established about 30 kilometres from the airport. It is a cooperative initiative between Karnataka state, which is offering the land for free, and central government in New Delhi, which will provide US$25 million (?12.4 million) in seed funding. 

’We are right now in the stage of inviting bids for development of the park,’ said Vidyashankar, who is credited for setting up similar parks in the state to promote information technology (IT) and biotechnology (BT). ’Our IT and BT parks have more foreign than local firms and the same may happen to the nanopark,’ he said. ’We want multinational firms to come because they bring a good work culture.’ Vidyashankar estimates that the nanopark may open in 18 months.

Details about companies interested in occupying the park are expected to be announced at the Bangalore Nano 2007 conference in December, organised by the Karnataka government.

Too little, too late?

Bangalore’s nanopark owes its birth to the Indian government’s big - though belated - push into nanotechnology.   In May this year, the cabinet sanctioned US$250 million for a five-year ’nano mission’ to boost the field - the largest amount ever allocated for a single science project.  

’We got the funding after fighting for three years,’ said Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao (better known as C N R.Rao), a renowned chemist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore, who is heading the mission. ’We have to invest this money in the best way that will make us a world leader in nanotech.’ The $25 million grant to Bangalore’s nanopark is one such investment. 

The mission’s broad plan is to create five national facilities in specified areas, including a synchrotron facility dedicated to nanoscience, and a further 10 R&D centres across the country.

"We are inviting industries in India and abroad with open arms to set up their units in our new park" - Mysore Vidyashankar, secretary for the Karnataka state science department

Nevertheless, piecemeal funding since 2002 of about $50 million has already nurtured nine centres for nanoscience at national institutions in India. Although Rao admits that India’s nanotechnology research has not yet matured to compete on the international stage, he believes it will take off with industry involvement.  

For example, petrochemical and manufacturing giant Reliance, India’s largest private sector company, has set up its own nanotechnology R&D centre in Pune. Tata Chemicals is planning to enter the biotech business using nanoscience as a base to develop high-value fertilisers. Even car manufacturers are getting in on the act, with Mumbai-based conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra investing in technologies like wiper-free windscreens and nano-ceramic window films.  

But while collaboration between industry and academia is increasing, the success rate for Indian nanotechnology start-up companies is still poor. The few small businesses that have emerged in the last five years have yet to commercialise their products due to a lack of seed capital

Amarnath Maitra, a chemistry professor at Delhi University and now a visiting scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, works on nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems. He is sceptical about whether the Bangalore nanopark will make a big difference to scientists in India. ’I did not get any recognition or grants from India, so I am trying to develop some technologies here [at Johns Hopkins],’ he said. 

But an optimistic Vidyashankar reckons that the nanopark could help India to overtake Singapore and South Korea in nanotechnology. ’I believe so absolutely,’ he said. ’We have done it in information technology and in biotechnology, so why not in nanotechnology?’

Killugudi Jayaraman / Bangalore, India