Nanotechnology report calls for additional emphasis on investment and commercialisation

A new report examining the state of play in the field of nanotechnology calls for a greater focus on commercialisation and job creation, and highlights that investment in R&D is paying off as regulators begin to approve nano-based products.

Findings from the draft report by the World Technology Evaluation Center were released at a meeting at the National Science Foundation in Virginia, US, last week. Speaking at the meeting, Chad Mirkin, co-chair of the panel of experts that led the study, said the field had transitioned in the last decade from ’a lot of hype’ to producing ’real substantive science and engineering accomplishments’.

Nanotechnology is one of the largest and most competitive research fields globally, with the market for nanotechnology-based products exceeding $250 billion (?157 billion), according to the report. Going forward, the authors call for greater emphasis on ’innovation and commercialisation, on job creation, and on societal "returns on investment," with measures to ensure safety and public participation.’

Nanobiosystems and nanomedicine are highlighted as the ’most exciting and fastest-growing areas’ in nanotechnology research, with US regulatory approvals for the first nanotherapeutics and nano-enabled diagnostic tools providing evidence that investment is starting to pay off. 

Despite much promise in this area, however, there is still a lack of financial support, Mirkin told Chemistry World. ’There’s a gap that in this area a lot of people would refer to as the Valley of Death,’ he says. ’Venture capital is getting more risk averse and government does not have a mechanism to fund across that gap very effectively. So the concern is that we’re building up shots on goal, but we’re not going to be able to take those shots.’ 

David Bennett, a nanotechnology and science policy specialist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, says the report provides a very good state-of-the-art review, but fails to take into account some of the usual caveats - at least in the area of nanomedicine. Besides glossing over the extortionate development costs for taking a pharmaceutical product to market, he says it is impossible to predict which technologies will eventually come through. ’Some things which were considered sure bets at the outset either take far longer than anticipated or don’t come through at all,’ says Bennett. ’Other things which start off as scientific or technological curiosities revolutionise the world.’ 

The report also calls for environmental, health and safety aspects of nanotechnology to be integrated into mainstream nanotechnology research. ’There’s no reason, at least from my perspective, to fear miniaturisation,’ says Mirkin. ’But all of these are new chemical agents and they have to get smart within [the regulatory agencies], and come up with reasonable protocols to look at these.’ 

Hayley Birch