Shanghai’s nano knights embark on a quest to reclaim the name

SHANGHAI, China, March 11, 2003 — A few years ago, “nano” products popped up all over China. But, as it turned out, “nanotoothpaste” and “nanotableware” more closely resembled nano snake oil. There wasn’t any actual nanotechnology involved.

Pang Qianjun, a professor at Jiao Tong University and director of the Nano Science and Technology Engineering Research Center there, recalls the days when nano’s good name was dragged through the mud by companies that took the prefix and “overheated it as a marketing ploy.”

That’s why those who run the recently opened Shanghai Nanotechnology Promotion Center believe they’re on a mission: to create a viable market for nanotechnology … real nanotechnology.

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The center, nestled in the High-Tech World complex, a cluster of high-rise office buildings, is strategically situated to connect buyers with sellers, researchers with manufacturers. But they have their work cut out for them. The building is half empty, and most of the surrounding companies are not involved solely in nanotechnology.

The problem with trying to create a market at this stage is that so much of the business of nanotechnology is happening in China’s universities, where researchers are still trying to find viable commercial products.

Naturally, there is a divide between scientists and businessmen. Of course, they are equally enthusiastic about potential commercial nanotech products. But scientists are excited about shrinking the wait from 40 years to 20, while businessmen are already impatient, loath to spend now for such a late payoff. The nanotech promotion center was created to help bridge this gap.

Niu Xiaoming, the center’s director, sees nanotech’s business potential and is serious about his role as facilitator. The center’s staff is trying to connect businesses with university research departments domestically and internationally, mainly through conferences, workshops, and a bulletin board and chat network.

Research is big here, and getting bigger. There are five big research universities in the Shanghai area alone, each of which boasts at least one nanotechnology center with a staff of an average of 10 professors plus their graduate students. Funding is the main reason for this growth. Pang noted that since nanotechnology is “fashionable now, it is easy to get financial support from the government and companies. More and more professors are shifting their interests to the nanotechnology side, the same as in other countries.”

Pang believes creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States was a watershed moment that motivated the world, especially China. Government funding has increased yearly, but the numbers are small relative to the United States. His research center’s budget was roughly $2 million last year. Cheaper labor in China, however, helps to offset the difference.

The Nanotechnology Promotion Center assists here by establishing ties between companies and research departments. Nonetheless, Niu knows that since companies are focused on profits, getting businesses to invest in this area at this time is a difficult task.

“It’s a reality that the municipal government has to promote industry zones, concentrating on nano and pushing it forward,” he said.

His attitude contrasts with that of some researchers. “We aren’t competing or cooperating with other universities,” said a materials science professor at Fudan University, one of China’s top three research universities. The professor, who asked that his name not be used, said his department is funded solely by a private American company, so it doesn’t need money from the government. He has not attended the conferences given by the Shanghai center and said that he and his graduate students have used the chat network “once, maybe twice.” Moreover, when his lab makes a discovery, the American company, which he also would not name, will get the patent rights.

Academia isn’t alone in this focus overseas. Chengyin Technology Co. Ltd. is practically unique in China because it already has nanotech products completed — the company’s flagship is a nanostructured compound of titanium dioxide for sunscreen, UV-block paint and antimicrobial agents. Chengyin is based in Shenzhen, but the company’s R&D center is in Shanghai. Marconi Lee, Chengying’s chief marketing officer, said that although his firm has partnerships with manufacturing plants in China, its target market is outside the country.

That’s one of the problems the promotion center is trying to solve: How to keep the locally grown technology at home. It’s doing that by simply being an at-home resource to anyone who wants to use it. Niu said that any company curious about nanotech, whether in medical equipment or semiconductors, domestic or international, can approach its staff and get help in finding a suitable investment opportunity.

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