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Posted: Dec 05, 2008
Russia's nanotechnology crash program
(Nanowerk Spotlight) This week's successful international nanotechnology forum Rusnanotech in Moscow has put a spotlight on Russia's ambitions to catch up with the leading nanotechnology nations. While Russia has the money, the political will, and a well educated scientific base to be a leading player, it has completely missed the boat on developing its nanoscience programs and nanotechnology infrastructure.
In terms of gross domestic product (GDP), Russia ranks as the eleventh largest economy in the world. But while many smaller countries such as Australia or South Korea, not to mention all of the bigger nations, have invested steadily and broadly in all areas of nanosciences and nanotechnologies for years now, Russia has had no coordinated science policy, no industrial policy, and no commercial industrial base to develop its nanotechnology capabilities. Until last year, that is. In April 2007, the Russian president signed off on a public policy paper that ordered a multi-billion dollar program to develop a world-class Russian nanotechnology industry by 2015.
In comparison, in the United States, the first attempts to coordinate federal work on the nanoscale began in November 1996, when staff members from several agencies decided to meet regularly to discuss their plans and programs in nanoscale science and technology. This group continued informally until September 1998, when it was designated as the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology (IWGN) under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). In its 2001 budget submission to Congress, the Clinton administration raised nanoscale science and technology to the level of a federal initiative, officially referring to it as the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
In Europe, individual countries have been active in nanosciences and Nanotechnologies to various degrees for about the same time period, with almost 40% of public EU nanotechnology funding taking place in Germany and estimates that about half of the European companies active in nanotechnology are based in Germany, making the country the clear nanotechnology leader in Europe. On the European Union level, research is mostly coordinated through the Research Framework Programmes (FPs) where for instance the FP6 (2002-2006) saw €1.4 billion spent on more than 550 nanoscience and nanotechnology projects. But already FP4 (1994-1998) saw €120 million nano project spend and FP5 (1998-2002) €220 million.
Similar efforts are being made by Japan (through its four-year Science and Technology Basic Plans) and PR China, where the government declared nanotechnology a critical R&D priority in their Guidance for National Development in 2001 and has invested billions of dollars into nanoscience programs.
According to Rusnano's business strategy document, the Corporation's mission is to "implement public policy with the purpose of Russia’s joining the number of the world leaders in the field of nanotechnology." Although it intends to cooperate with other Russian economic development organizations such as the Investment fund of the Russian Federation, the Development and Foreign Economic Activity Bank, the Joint Stock Company 'Special Economic Zones, or the Russian Venture Company, Rusnano is intended to be the central organization for all nanotechnology related developments.
In November 2008, Russia and China signed a nanotechnology cooperation agreement.
Interestingly, although the country lacks a broad and developed nanoscience research infrastructure, Rusnano's self-declared major priority is a commercial focus on investment projects and it mentions these industries as core: aerospace, rocket and space, nuclear, and energy. The Corporation intends to act as a venture capital provider to get nanotechnology developments from the lab to early-stage commercialization with the hope that private investments from within Russia and abroad will then be available to further grow specific projects (by the way, Rusnano's strategy paper throughout talks about funding "projects" and "products", not "companies", but that might just be a linguistic issue).
The long list of "key tasks" that have been defined by/for Rusnano underline the highly ambitious goals and expectations that the Corporation's success will be measured against:
1) Foresights and roadmapping, jointly with various agencies and organizations, to drive scientific, technological and commercial development of Russian nanotechnology.
2) Infrastructure programs. Rusnano is expected to co-finance the development of Russia's scientific and engineering infrastructure as well as industrial parks, technology transfer centers, special economic zones and business incubators. Furthermore, it has established a new program, The XXIst century laboratory, that will develop a new type of laboratory that will integrate research expertise across various disciplines and expertise.
3) Research and development projects. Most R&D projects to be funded need to have a market focus and funding will be approved based on the projects' commercialization prospects.
4) Intellectual property. Rusnano intends to build a strong IP portfolio.
5) Educational projects. The Corporation will support dedicated training programs for nanoscientists and the establishment of educational clusters, "where interdisciplinary education, training and re-training of specialists required for all stages of the innovation pipeline in nanoindustry, are carried out."
6) Development of market conditions and relations. It appears that the goal here is to establish free enterprise and market conditions so that Russian nanotechnology start-ups will not be held back by regulatory and bureaucratic red tape. Activities will include the promotion of "nanotechnology made in Russia" on the world market and the set-up of various nanotechnology infrastructure projects and special economic zones.
7) Certification, standardization and metrology. We already reported on the newly established NANOCERTIFICA system.
8) Safety and risk management. Maintaining nanoproduct safety standards and cooperation with international bodies.
9) Public awareness. PR and information efforts aimed at the Russian population as well as Russia's nanotechnology image abroad.
10) Nanotechnology related information. Being at the center of the national nanotechnology network, Rusnano aims to develop and maintain databases to facilitate the exchange of all nanotechnology related information in Russia.
11) Participation in the legislative process. The Corporation is expected to participate in the Russian federation's legislative process with regard to all aspects of the country's nanotechnology industry and infrastructure.
12) International Co-operation. Particularly with the export of Russian high-tech products in mind, Rusnano will seek to enter into agreements and cooperative efforts to facilitate the Russian nanoindustry's presence on the international marketplace.
13) Establishment of an international forum for the exchange of ideas and and discussion. This has been kicked off with this week's Rusnanotech event, a forum that is planned to take place annually and will be supplemented by other symposiums, seminars and exhibitions.
Another aspect of the Rusnano strategy paper that jumps out are the financials – the large and sustained funding amounts and the ambitious revenue goals between now and 2015.
Sales of Russian nanoindustry products
Share of world market of nanoindustry products
Volume of exports of nanoindustry products
(the above figures were converted assuming $1 = 28 rubles)
It is obvious that Russia has chosen a much more centralized approach to developing a nanotechnology industry than most other industrial nations. While this could be a result of the countries past history of large state monopolies, it could on the other hand be the only realistic way of pulling off the crash development of the Russian nanoindustry.
Europe and the U.S. had the luxury of time over the past 10-15 years to organically grow their nanoscience networks, research infrastructures, and targeted government programs. In addition, a well developed venture capital industry, especially in the U.S., has assured the availability of significant amounts of private investment capital. If these regions had to start from scratch today, and in a hurry to catch up, they probably would choose a much more centralized and coordinated effort; particularly in view of the duplication and fragmentation of research efforts that has become an issue especially in Europe.
Time will show if the Russian approach works. With the flurry of deals, projects and cooperations announced over the past few months, not to mention the glitzy Rusnanotech event, they appear to be off to a good start.