How (and why) to talk to business leaders about nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Those of us who work in the field of nanoscience know all about the uniqueness of the nanoscale. However, now that use cases for nanotechnology are ramping up across virtually all industry sectors, it’s essential to take a step back and remember that few in the business world have experience like ours.
In fact, many in the C-suite may be unsure of what nanoscience is or how their businesses could benefit from it. That’s a big problem – because these decision makers are not going to support nanotechnology projects that they don’t fundamentally understand.
We need to rise to the challenge and start helping business leaders appreciate the distinctiveness and enormous potential of this rapidly evolving field.
To that end, when you are presenting to executives, be sure to take a few brief minutes to level set the conversation. Explain that:
The nanoscale is both ordinary… and extraordinary. When it comes right down to it, the nanoscale is nothing more than a dimension; it’s just really, really small. But business execs need to realize that this really, really small scale also happens to be the scale at which biology – meaning life itself – occurs. That means quantum effects start to come into play, and any knowledge or intuition someone has about physical systems and how they behave may not necessarily apply. An example is useful to illustrate this point.
Everyone is familiar with graphite, the form of carbon used to make lead pencils. But your audience may not have heard of graphene, which nanoscientists created about a decade ago. Graphene, which is sheets of graphite just one atom thick, is the thinnest material known to exist. It is flexible, lightweight, incredibly conductive electrically, and the strongest material yet discovered – 200 times stronger than steel.
Working at the nanoscale is not 'business as usual'. Corporate decision makers must understand that manufacturing and characterizing at the nanoscale requires highly regulated environmental conditions that are free from particles and interference of any kind. You’ll need to explain that because common impurities, such as a speck of dust, a skin cell, or even a single, subtle vibration, are generally much larger than a nanometer, they can dramatically impede any type of work you’re trying to do at the nanoscale.
That’s why strict parameters must be enforced, and environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, air quality, and electromagnetic interference need to be controlled down to the sub-nanometer level.
The nanoscale requires specialized tools and capabilities. In addition to a particle- and interference-free environment, working at the nanoscale involves sophisticated equipment. For example, manufacturers may be making or manipulating thin membranes that are just a micron or a single atom thick. Or, those working to characterize at the nanoscale may need specialized tools like a cryo-electron microscope, which can pass electron beams through material samples from different orientations at the sub-cellular level.
Because this type of equipment can be resource-intensive, business executives may be interested to learn that some research facilities offer cleanrooms and advanced toolsets that can be shared for the fabrication, study, and manipulation of nanoscale structures and systems.
Nanotechnology projects wouldn’t be possible without massive quantities of data, both as inputs and outputs. Just like all other business processes these days, nanotechnology involves enormous amounts of data. Data is required for establishing the right conditions and for operating equipment. Then, once the work begins, even bigger data sets are generated. Business executives need to know that in order to connect the physical to the digital for nano applications, It is critical to be able to manage, process, and utilize these data streams.
Researchers across all scientific disciplines – materials, photovoltaics, computation, chemistry, and biologics, to name just a few – are developing applications for nanotechnology. However, most of these innovations will never be fully realized without industry support. We all need to do our part to improve understanding of nanoscience so we can continue to move forward with these revolutionary ways of manufacturing and characterizing matter.
By Brian W. Anthony. Professor Anthony is the co-director of MIT’s Medical Electronic Device Realization Center and associate director of MIT.nano. He is also a lead instructor of the 3-day MIT Professional Education course, Nanoscience and Nanotech: Industrial Application and Transformation, which takes place July 13-15, 2020. With more than 25 years of experience in product realization, Dr. Anthony designs instruments and techniques to monitor and control physical systems. His work involves systems analysis and design, calling upon mechanical, electrical, and optical engineering, along with computer science and optimization.

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