Nanotechnology's fact, fiction or fake news?

For many years, we have read numerous reports about the commercialisation of nanotechnology, or lack of, from sources ranging academic research papers to the commercial and consumer media.

Almost every week there’s another report about the size of the market, or several patents coming out of the likes of the US and China, but are we starting to see a new breed of entrepreneur who are seizing the commercial opportunities yet to be exploited in nanotechnology? 

In my capacity as Chairman of The World Nano Foundation, I see first-hand how an expanding group of entrepreneurs are taking nanotechnology products to markets, often utilizing IP which has previously sat idle in the patent libraries. In the last six months, we have witnessed companies securing multi-million (even billion) dollar deals in the across the world.   

International Climate The USA has always led in nanotechnology investment, but we have recently seen large economies, such as China, move towards a more innovation-driven economy, which has led to a growing interest, and investment, in the commercialisation of nanotechnology. I have also seen first-hand how countries such as those in the Middle-East are looking to invest heavily in nano innovations, as they try to divest outside their traditional oil based commodities.  

China, for example, has realised that to maintain its double-digit growth annually, it needs to divert some of its 10 million+ manufacturers into collaborating with western nanotechnology innovation. Opening their own markets to new partners from around the globe is key to their strategy. 

China’s one belt, one road global expansion policy, is driving international  collaboration, investment and innovation across the country to solve economic, social and environmental issues. Last year, China filed more US patents in nanotechnology than the US itself and invested more in technology in the US by June 2016 than US investors did in the whole of the previous year. The US have however, announced further ongoing multi-billion-dollar investment in Nanotechnology research through their NNI programme in 2017, with much more emphasis on real commercialisation of these initiatives. Notably, we have seen the likes of Boston and Chicago become a beacon for commercialisation, even stealing ground from innovation centers such as Silicon Valley.   

Investors and Executors We are also seeing a new breed of engaged investors, uninterested in old VC models of funding, backing innovators who can execute in commercial markets and develop brands with strong IP, manufacturing capability and scale up. The money’s there, the proven technology is there, but finding those that can execute their visions; those successfully building markets and brands in the global arena of nanotechnology is where we currently see the biggest gap. 

The investment environment’s right, the technology is right, but the understanding of how to access and market oneself across different regions is key to the commercial success stories coming through over the next few years and beyond.  Many investors, family offices and philanthropists are making much larger strategic investments in nanotechnology projects than ever before. The big questions that always need satisfying though are “Is your market accessible or is there a big gorilla on the patch who won’t take kindly to you taking their banana?  “Does the team have the market knowledge as well as the technical knowledge?  “Is the IP strong and can you build a brand that can access a global market?”  If the answer is yes to all these questions, then we know that the investment is viable. Often it is not the best mouse trap innovation that wins the day it is those that understand and can commercialise all the regional markets around the world.  So, nanotechnology innovations are going to change our world for generations to come, but only if they have the people with the vision, determination and know-how of executing a commercial plan not just a set of proven research papers and that’s fact not fiction.

Written by World Nano Foundation's Chairman, Paul Stannard.

Arnold Kristoff