Posted: June 20, 2007

Nanotechnology: Europe invested in research, where are the applications?

(Nanowerk News) The dimensions are miniscule, the potential enormous. But if Europe is to benefit from all that nanoscience and nanotechnology has to offer, the results of research must make their way out of the lab, and into industrial applications.
Industrial application is the theme of the third EuroNanoForum, this time taking place in Düsseldorf, Germany. During the opening plenary on 18 June, State Secretary from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Thomas Rachel, said that the market for nanotechnology products will be worth €1 billion in 2015.
Mr Rachel emphasised that nanotechnologies can bring much more than economic success. Working at the nanoscale has the potential to find solutions for major global problems, including climate change and disease.
Anti-microbial wound dressings; new, lighter material for wind turbines; targeted drug delivery systems, highly efficient batteries, gas detection, and a device for identifying quickly the reason for chest pains were just some of the applications of the future mentioned during the first day of the three-day conference.
But are the results of this pioneering research finding their way to industry? Some are and some are not, according to Renzo Tomellini, Head of the European Commission's Nanotechnology Unit. Speaking to CORDIS News, he said that domains, such as nanoelectronics, are already making money. In other fields there are various bottlenecks delaying the arrival of nano products on the market.
Scientists are in most cases still at the stage of introducing nanotechnology to the production chain, adding value as they go, says Mr Tomellini. 'We don't sell nanotechnology, we sell products,' he emphasises.
Delays to take-up can be attributed to a number of factors. Of course there are technological issues (this is still a very new field of research). But regulations, or uncertainty as to whether a new regulation is imminent, unease among the general public, a lack of skilled personnel, insufficient intellectual property protection, hesitation from insurance companies, all contribute to the bottleneck that slows the industrial application of nanotechnology products.
'Ideas must not stay in labs. Small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] must take up the ideas and further develop them. The State cannot do this,' said the German State Secretary.
But SMEs face particular difficulties. It is more difficult for a small company to borrow money for a nanotechnology venture as insurance companies are concerned about risk. Investors also like to look at the history of a sector, which is difficult in such a young area.
Mr Rachel suggested that SMEs are best helped at regional level. But the Commission also has tools in place. The new guarantee funds, for example, facilitate the participation of SMEs in the EU's research framework programmes. The SMEs that will do best in nano are those that have an ambition to grow, says Mr Tomellini.
Of course nanotechnology must also deal with the problems experienced by the rest of the scientific community: a lack of scientists, and particularly engineers; a failure in some countries to recognise qualifications awarded in others; and insufficient researcher mobility between countries and sectors. Such problems can only be addressed if industry, society and politics work together, Mr Rachel told the conference.
This list was further extended by Nick Hartley, Director of Industrial Technologies in the European Commission's Research DG. If Europe is to benefit from the money that it is currently investing in nanotechnology, it needs the right infrastructure, the human resources, industrial innovation, and an effective way of addressing societal concerns, said Mr Hartley.
The Commission, with its 'two head' capacity, is seeking to both make the right policy decisions, and then to back up these decisions with funding. The nanotechnology action plan published in 2005 got the strategy rolling, and the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), launched on 1 January 2007, is providing substantial funding (€3.5 billion over seven years).
Mr Tomellini is confident that the EU has the tools in place to avoid what has been known as the 'European Paradox' - the phenomenon by which Europe invests in research, but then fails to transfer the results into products, and instead imports the resulting technologies from elsewhere. 'We have the tools to change the paradigm and to make a jump of quality,' Mr Tomellini told CORDIS News.
Source: Cordis