Devotees call nanotechnology the biggest thing since the Industrial Revolution. Nanotech, they say, promises to re-engineer the man-made world molecule by molecule, sparking a wave of innovation in everything from machines to medicine. Yet those involved in the technology point out that, at present, much of what is going on only exists in the laboratory.

Nevertheless, over the past three years, venture capitalists in the US have injected about $900m into the field and companies are edging their way towards commercialisation. Some are making the move more quickly than others.

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Take QuantumSphere of Costa Mesa, California. In 2002, Kevin Maloney was approached by scientists who needed help marketing their product and finding investors. He floated the idea to friends who worked in the financial world and, instead of advice, he found instant investors. The company anticipates $1m in business next year. The reason: QuantumSphere is delivering its product and making revenue.

To date, QuantumSphere’s business has primarily entailed sending out sample metallic nanopowders for innovative applications in the aerospace defence, energy, biomedical and other markets. Now the company is ready to ramp up production to fulfil Fortune 500 company needs.

“We are looking to expand from our 4000 square foot building to 10,000 square feet of space,” says Mr Maloney. “QuantumSphere is two years ahead of its competitors.”

The cost of space will be expensive, given the company’s southern California location. But it has access to top talent, venture capital and support from the University of California, Irvine.

Similarly, eSpin Technologies, a nanofibres company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is increasing production. Founded in 1999 and self-funded by entrepreneur Jayesh Doshi, eSpin was started in a city-centre business incubator but has moved to Chattanooga’s 2800-plus acre Enterprise South.

“We chose Chattanooga for our headquarters because it shares our innovative spirit and gives us easy access to world-class research and development (R&D) support at Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” says Mr Doshi.

Business grows

The company sustained its growth in its first four years by selling samples. Mr Doshi talked to venture capitalists in California, Atlanta and Boston; they were intrigued by his company’s name but would not invest due to the dotcom bust and because eSpin was not associated with e-commerce. With major companies now wanting large quantities of eSpin’s product, millions of dollars’ worth of equipment is being installed at its facility.

Mr Doshi admits running costs are high. “You have to plan for many things, such as complying with rules set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These expenses do not always show up on the profit/balance sheet,” he says.

Within six months, eSpin expects to be producing five million yards of nanofibre from its Chattanooga site. “Our vision is to become a big company,“ Mr Doshi says. “But we need to start small. It is always the chicken and the egg situation.” The firm employs 23 workers, and anticipates increasing its staff to 50 by next year.

Transformative

The potential for nanotechnology to transform industry is enormous. The US National Science Foundation predicts the world market for nanotechnology products will be worth $3000bn by 2015. Consequently, in the US, the five-year-old National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) now co-ordinates a budget of nearly $1bn across 21 federal agencies and departments. With last year’s passage of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, $3.7bn was also authorised for R&D, public hearings, expert advisory panels and a centre to study nanotech’s environmental, societal and ethical effects over four years. Most important, NNI has fostered collaboration among 22 participating government agencies and encouraged 40 similar programmes worldwide.

Big players

The US is by far the world’s largest supporter of nanotechnology. Besides federal initiatives, today many states are incorporating nanotechnology into their economic development efforts. In 2004, about $400m was poured into research, facilities and business incubation programmes.

New York State is a big player in the industry. Four years ago, New York governor George E. Pataki included nanotechnology in the ‘Centers of Excellence’ effort to create a powerhouse of activity. Today, corporations match these funds by two to three times. Small Times magazine recently cited the University at Albany’s Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics as first in the nation in nanotechnology facilities, as well as first in microtechnology and nanotechnology industry outreach.

“Companies like IBM, Micron, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola are anchor partners at the centre,” says Michael Fancher, director of economic outreach at Albany NanoTech and associate professor of nanoeconomics at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

Other states that play a strong role in the sector include California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, New Jersey, Michigan, Texas, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina and Ohio. Much of the activity in Virginia is government and defence related.

From its facilities in McLean, Virginia, the MITRE Corp works as a not-for-profit organisation in partnership with three US government-funded agencies – the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Internal Revenue Service – managing three federally funded R&D centres. In doing so, the company – whose headquarters are in Bedford, Massachusetts – invests in a technology programme that includes nanotech.

“Northern Virginia offers terrific schools and a workforce that we could not replicate anywhere else,” says James Ellenbogen, MITRE’s senior principal scientist in the nanosystems group.

Swift fruition

Lockheed Martin operates from a one million square foot facility in Manassas, Virginia, which is developing nanotechnology to be used in defence systems of the future. Among them is the SnifferSTAR, which can be deployed on unmanned aerial vehicles. “We are seeing a host of disciplines coming to fruition faster than we expected,” says Sharon Smith, director of advanced technology at Lockheed Martin.

In California, the Northern California Nanotechnology Initiative is playing a key role in promoting nanotechnology research in the San Francisco Bay Area. Anchored by Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, SRI, UCSF, UC Davis and NASA Ames, the region offers high availability of intellectual property, a skilled workforce and an existing infrastructure.

Companies operating there include Nanosys of Palo Alto, which holds more than 300 patents and patent applications. In January, it entered into a collaborative agreement with Sharp Corporation of Osaka, Japan, to develop nanotechnology fuel cells incorporating Nanosys’ proprietary nanostructure technology.

“Sharp’s expertise and success in the development and commercialisation of portable electronics and renewable energy products makes them an excellent collaborator for Nanosys,” says Nanosys CEO Calvin Chow.

Collaboration

Southern California’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCI is making headway in nanotechnology by collaborating with other departments at the university. Breakthrough discoveries in nanotubes have already been made at UCI that are leading the way for supercomputer and healthcare applications.

“We have great technology, but it is very expensive for manufacturers. We need to solve that problem. Bulk materials is a big issue,” comments Peter Burke, UCI assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who conducted the research with several graduate students.

Lux Research, a leading advisory firm focusing on the business and economic impact of nanotechnology, gives Pennsylvania high marks as a leading state for nanotech development. It has 2000-plus life sciences establishments, world-class basic research, emerging companies, global pharmaceutical companies and a strong infrastructure to support micro and nanotechnology companies. Giving the state a boost is Pennsylvania’s Initiative for Nanotechnology, along with the state’s six research institutions.

More than $375m has been leveraged in nano-related areas in private, university and federal funding with more than 125 Pennsylvania companies having received direct benefits. One company to benefit is Crystalplex Corp, founded by LaunchCyte LLC, a Pittsburgh-based early-stage venture capital firm that received funding from the Commonwealth’s Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority.

European efforts

Europe is less organised in its nanotech efforts because it lacks a coherent infrastructure. Experts say that support at the EU, national and regional levels is much needed. Nevertheless, the European Commission has proposed an action plan on what it and member states must do to keep Europe at the forefront of the field.

Various activities are ongoing across the continent. Late last year, the French government announced it will increase its funding for nanosciences and nanotechnology from €30m to €70m over three years. The UK’s Department of Trade and Industry gave the sector a boost by awarding 25 projects £15m in funding. The projects range from anti-corrosion coatings and electronics to water purification and printing. The government investment provides up to a maximum of 50% of each project’s total value.

In addition, £3m was given to INEX, a microsystems and nanotechnology facility for industry based at Newcastle. The grants were among the first to be allocated from the government’s £90m micro and nanotechnology manufacturing initiative. The initiative is aimed at supporting nanotechnology applied research programmes and the creation of new nanotechnology facilities across the country. Further grants will be made available in the next five years to complete the initiative.

Other UK government programmes include £70m for a wide range of activities, including two Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations, the Basic Technology Research Programme, and the UK Micro and Nanotechnology Network, which is responsible for raising awareness of the technology in UK industry.

Various universities across the UK are fostering nanotechnology research with the goal of commercialisation. In Northern Ireland, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster are focused on nanotechnology. “We are cherry picking nanotech technologies to decide which are most economically viable for commercialisation and economic growth,” says Robert Brown, director of Nanotec Northern Ireland, a centre for the design, fabrication, characterisation and commercial exploitation of nanotechnology processes, devices and systems.

Nanotec NI is a strategic partnership between the University of Ulster, Queen’s University Belfast, Invest Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning, and various Northern Ireland industries. To date it has received £11m of EU and university funding.

“Our goal is to develop new industries in Northern Ireland and elsewhere,” says Mr Brown. “Nanotechnology applications can easily translate to aerospace, pharmaceuticals, data storage and textiles – industries that are strong in Northern Ireland.”

Seagate Technology, in Springtown, Londonderry, for example, is among the UK’s leaders in applying nanotechnology to developing products for the electronics industry worldwide. Mr Brown sees particular opportunities for nanotechnology advancement with Seagate, which manufacturers 30% of the world’s hard drives from its location in Londonderry. “Seagate is probably Europe’s highest volume nanotech producer,” he says.

In Wales, experts at Cardiff University’s Manufacturing Engineering Centre (MEC) are setting world standards in micro-engineering. “This achievement is at the leading edge of world engineering practice,” says Stefan Dimov of the MEC.

The MEC is one of the most advanced product development centres in Europe, providing advanced systems and methods in prototyping and tooling. Spin-off work in nanotechnology is already fostering industrial growth; for example, Q-Chip in Cardiff is now a viable commercial company.

German activity

Germany is heavily involved in nanotechnology. Nine major centres make up the core of its nanotech activity: Nanomat in Karlsruhe; the Competence Centre Ultraprecision Surface Figuring in Braunschweig; ENNaB in Munich; CeNTech in Münster; HanseNaotech in Hamburg; CC-NanoChem in Saarburken; CC-Nanobiottech in Kaiserlautern; CC Ultrathin Functional Films in Dresden; and NanOp in Berlin.

From Munich hails the Centre for Nanoscience, which is one of 22 R&D institutes and units that form Munich’s nanoscience cluster. Among the city’s nanotech start-ups are Definiens, PALM and Attocube. PALM is a world leading supplier of laser-based, microscope-coupled devices. Attocube is known for its nano-positioning systems, which have become research workhorses for nano-scientists worldwide.

Nanotechnology is developing well in Switzerland, a country known for its workmanship in tiny technologies. Switzerland spends more money on nanotechnology R&D than any country except Japan. Its top-ranking business schools work directly with technology institutes and major private, semi-public and public research laboratories, such as the IRM Research Laboratory in Ruschikon, Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique in Neuchatel, and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen.

Asian enthusiasm

Asian countries are jumping onto the nanotechnology bandwagon. South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are jockeying to become nanotech leaders through various government and association initiatives that could inject hundreds of millions of dollars into education and R&D.

South Korea’s Ministry of Science and Technology, for example, designated land last year for the development of Daedeok Science Town, a complex dedicated to nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology. Neighbouring Daejeon City is already home to about 80 research and educational research institutes, including 800 venture companies. Daejeon also serves as Korea’s second administrative capital city, housing national agencies, including the Korean Intellectual Property Office and a patent court.

Singapore’s Education Ministry is earmarking $1.75m for nanotechnology-related scholarships. Taiwan is beefing up its nanotech-related commercialisation through an industry association.

Thailand’s National Nanotechnology Centre is introducing a strategic 10-year plan to make the country an Asian nanotechnology R&D leader. The plan not only sets guidelines for Thailand’s nanotechnology development, but also creates cluster platforms among researchers, institutes and industries. It calls for targeting six products for development – sensors, nano-electronic devices, drug-delivery systems, nano-coating materials, nano-catalysts and nano-composites – as well as training 2500 people. The government hopes to increase the R&D budget to Bt12bn ($291m) and enable the country to register 300 nanotechnology-related patents in the next 10 years. The government wants to see Thailand produce its own nanotechnology-based products worth Bt120bn.

Australia is promoting itself as one of the world’s niche centres for nanotechnology and commercialisation due to its close alignment with the US’s financial and regulatory systems, which makes partnering with Australian companies easy.

India and China also want to be the hub for this new technological shake-up. India’s government is already making investments in promoting nanotech research with large funds heading to various institutions.

In China, the Zhejiang University, taking advantage of its high-level research resources and findings, recently joined hands with the California-based International Institute of Nanotechnology to create a branch institute in Hangzhou. The development takes co-operation in the field of nanotechnology between China and the US to a new level.

Argentina’s strategy

Argentina has implemented a 10-year strategy to strengthen and guide nanotechnology R&D. Efforts are under way to launch the Argentine Nanotechnology Foundation. Overall, the country would like to build local capacity for nanotechnology and encourage research collaborations with scientists in Brazil and Europe.

Israel also continues to make significant strides in developing its nanotechnology industry.

Without a doubt, countries worldwide recognise nanotech as the next big technological boom. As more of them see its potential, few will want to be left behind.