Mind the (global perspective) gap


What’s the biggest barrier to small-tech commercialization today? Is it a lack of standards? Manufacturing or infrastructure challenges? Shortage of a qualified workforce? Intellectual property or EH&S (environmental, health, and safety) concerns?

No matter which of these issues you choose as the “right” answer, lack of global perspective is impeding its solution.

Recent trips to Helsinki (Nanotech Northern Europe), Chicago (Chicago Nano Forum), and NYC (NanoBusiness Alliance Conference) opened my eyes to the gap in understanding of who is doing what and where.

Although I was impressed with the range of attendees at Nanotech Northern Europe-and the range of initiatives being driven within and among European countries-the dearth of North American and Asian attendees disappointed me. There was a strong Chinese delegation and a couple of American exhibitors, but attendees were mainly from Europe and Russia.

While I understand that Nanotech Japan provides perhaps the best international exhibit platform, my travels have not taken me to a truly global conference, which means many efforts at solving commercialization challenges aren’t getting maximum visibility. Researchers and developers around the world are moving at such a fast pace that there doesn’t seem to be time to investigate what our neighbors are doing. Granted, conferences are not the only solution to information sharing, but they are a good indicator-and the value of face-to-face interaction cannot be matched.

Enabling a more global view of small tech can impact three key issues: government support, intellectual property, and a coordinated response to EH&S concerns.

Mobilizing government support

The small-tech community depends on governments for three critical things: money, policy, and regulations. Money is needed for R&D, infrastructure, and small business promotion. Policy determines where the money goes, and regulations provide a set of rules to play by.

Unfortunately, there are pressures on members within the U.S. government to show a rapid investment return in a timeframe similar to that demanded by venture capitalists. And we know how that has turned out for nano start-up capital: Not well.

Are we sufficiently patient to keep funding nanotechnology growth? That’s not clear at this point. As Sam Angelos, vice president of technology development at Hewlett-Packard, aptly notes, “Nano is a marathon, not a sprint.” Although groups such as the NanoBusiness Alliance, Foley & Lardner, and KL Gates are trying to communicate nanotechnology industry needs and progress to our government representatives, this is hardly a one- or two-organization job.

How are other nations viewing their commitments to nanotechnology growth? I’ve been told the U.S. and Japan programs are starting to fall behind. Is this an accurate assumption? How will the global competitive technology landscape be affected by policies made today? These are questions difficult to answer in a vacuum.

Intellectual property

Current challenges are fostering the need for patent and IP law professionals. We have avoided bloody IP wars because we have thus far lacked commercial products worth fighting over. However, an increase this year in product announcements and commercial partnerships indicates that situation won’t last for long. The Canon/Nano-Proprietary battle is just the beginning-and that case seems relatively simple. Who has the right to those nanotubes? Anyone?

The need for global protection in a world where the latest small-tech advances can come from almost anywhere makes deciding on an IP strategy complex and risky. How do we help our companies get the information and protection they need at a cost they can afford?

Toxicity, safety, and coordinated response

Better coordination on EH&S would do our whole ecosystem a lot of good. The question isn’t just about understanding what tests are being done and how to interpret their data-although that is critical. Rather, it is about sharing the resulting intelligence. A considerable amount of safety research is being done in China, but access to that data, in a form that can be understood, presents a problem.

Risk perception must also be managed. Government/industry collaborations, cross-agency initiatives, industry-lead consortiums, and for-profit certificates of “safety” standards in both Europe and the U.S. are all trying to address the issues of risk and perceived risk. As an industry based in science, we tend to believe logic will rule if we provide enough data and explain the risks and benefits in detail. But as University of Wisconsin professor Dietram Scheufele (see his blog at demonstrated in his presentation at the Chicago Nano Forum, it is important to frame the issue, not just explain the science.

Patti Glaza is vice president and publisher at Small Times. She can be reached at