Nanotechnologies are opening vast new opportunities for scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to participate in solving some of the major problems facing mankind today. But the road from idea to commercially viable product or process is long. Especially when it comes to nanotech innovations, the research and development phase tends to be relatively lengthy. To help potential nanotechnology start-up founders with shaping their plans, Nanowerk, the leading nanotechnology information service, and Nanostart, the world's leading nanotechnology venture capital company, have teamed up to provide this useful guide which particularly addresses the funding aspects of nanotechnology start-ups, along with answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
Following just two days after we wrote about the food industry's deafening silence on their nanotechnology research and development, the Investor Environmental Health Network today released a report that demonstrates that sectors affected by product toxicity risks are doing a poor job of informing shareholders of market risks they face due to toxic chemicals in their products. The report specifically addresses the situation for companies dealing with nanomaterials by noting that manufacturers are not disclosing the evidence of health risks of nanotechnology products, nor the lack of adequate product testing prior to their sales. An interesting observation is that some nanomaterial manufacturers are more open to communicating potential uncertainties than their customers. These customers of the nanomaterials are the manufacturers of an array of products from electronics to food and cosmetics - and they tend not to disclose the potential health and financial risks. IEHN's conclusion is that investors should be apprised of the state of the science by a company, instead of being misled to believe that the serious questions have been answered.
Slowly but surely the realization begins to sink in that there is no quick buck to be made for individual investors in nanotechnology companies (except for the people pushing investment advice of course). Existing public nanotechnology firms as a group have performed sub-standard (to put it politely); there isn't exactly a flood of nanotech IPOs on the horizon; and many product advances that have to do with nanotechnologies are made by large companies which either make these advances silently (witness the cosmetics industry) or tout them as major breakthroughs (like IBM's 'airgap' technology). In any case, all these nanotechnology-based materials are incremental improvements over existing materials - leading to better coatings, more efficient batteries and fuel cells, better performing materials, etc. - and not revolutionary devices. Of course, when we look back 10 years from now, there will have been one or two great performing nanotech stocks (I will tell you in 2017 who they are); but then there will be one or two great performing stocks in almost any other investment sector. Nevertheless, there are many start-ups and early stage companies out there - some might even make it to the IPO (initial public offering) stage or be bought by larger companies - and given the nature of the field, with its broad and multidisciplinary character, it certainly is helpful for the professional investor to be able to gauge the nanotechnology investment landscape from a technology perspective. A recent article describes a methodology to categorize different nanotechnologies into one of three types: passive, active, or hybrid nanotechnologies, each with different time horizons for expected commercial viability.
If you have been an investor in nanotechnology companies and been lured by the promised riches, the picture doesn't look very pretty right now. We have updated our Nanotechnology Stock Index Performance chart, that we first showed six months ago, and the performance gap between the Dow Jones and the nanotechnology index funds has widened significantly (it looks even worse if you replace the Dow Jones industrial Index with a broad market index such as the Russell 2000). Of course, individual nanotechnology stocks have done better, but then, some have done much worse. That brings us to the question: What will it take for nanotechnology, taken as a set of enabling technologies, to realize its disruptive potential and create value for nanotechnology companies? An interesting answer can be found in an analysis of the recent Unidym and Carbon Nanotechnologies merger. Growth in the sector through consolidation may enable the creation of companies with the critical mass necessary to finally get public investors really excited about nanotechnology.
There seems to be an arms race going on among nanotechnology investment and consulting firms as to who can come up with the highest figure for the size of the "nanotechnology market". The current record stands at $2.95 trillion by 2015. The granddaddy of the trillion-dollar forecasts of course is the National Science Foundation's (NSF) "$1 trillion by 2015", which inevitably gets quoted in many articles, business plans and funding applications. The "nanotechnology market" as a unified market was first quantified by the NSF in its massive 280-pages report from March 2001. The problem with these forecasts is that they are based on a highly inflationary data collection and compilation methodology. The result is that the headline figures - $1 trillion!, $2 trillion!, $3 trillion! - are more reminiscent of supermarket tabloids than serious market research. Some would call it pure hype. This type of market size forecast leads to misguided expectations because few people read the entire report and in the end only the misleading trillion-dollar headline figure gets quoted out of context, even by people who should now better, and finally achieves a life by itself.
There seem to be an increasing number of websites, articles and investment reports that push, some might say hype, nanotechnology stocks as the next stock market super growth area. On the other hand, some investors are wary of a nanotechnology boom, where too much money chases too few listed companies, turning into a dot.com-like bust. Hype usually involves a bit of underlying truth about a trend but says nothing about whether something is going to be a good investment. As the International Herald Tribune put it: "While nanotechnology is spurring a revolution in electronics and medicine, investors seeking to benefit may need a lot of luck, as they did during the Internet bubble of the 1990s." The current interest in nanotech stocks is driven by the many advances that nanoscience and nanotechnology promise. The commercial realization of most of these promises lies in the (some say near, some say distant) future; things like quantum computing, molecular electronics, or lab-on-a chip medicine. In its current state, nanotechnology to a large degree takes place in labs and there is only a trickle of products coming to the market. All of these products are incremental improvements of existing products - scratch-resistant paint, better engine oil, antimicrobial household products, smaller chips, improved cosmetics, etc. What we are seeing right now is the beginning of a large technological trend and a stock buyer has to understand the difference between the many promises of nano- technologies, the research taking place today, and the actual contribution of nanotechnologies to commercial products. Let's look at a few facts that might give some perspective on what investing in nanotechnology stocks today is about - how has the market performed so far? what exactly is a "nanotechnology stock"? and the issue with these trillion dollar market size forecasts.