Nanotechnology has always been around but got a big boost with Richard Feynman’s lecture titled “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” in 1959. The introduction of the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 and bucky balls (60 carbon atoms) in 1985 further ramped up the interest level. Then came the ambitious predictions and amazing forecasts. Everyone, including me, wanted to get some action. The rush generated lots of activities in terms of startup companies and investments and naturally, there was the inevitable disappointment. These days, the decibel level is lower but make no mistake, nanotechnology is now integrated into conventional technologies and making a difference. Both startups and large corporations are introducing nano-enabled products in the marketplace across industries that include energy, chemicals, environmental, electronics/semiconductor, personal care, textiles, agriculture, transportation, biomedical/biotechnology, and packaging. Already, over 800 everyday products (Nano.gov) rely on nanoscale materials and processes and this will surely continue to expand.
Nanotechnology is the practice of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular levels in a length scale up to 100 nm in any direction, creating structures, systems and devices leveraging size dependent properties and functions only possible in this nanometer structural zone. Substantive changes in optical, magnetic, electronic, thermal, and physical properties facilitate the nano advantages.
Nanomaterials are of particular interest and at Pangaea Ventures, our focused approach on advanced materials gives us an exceptional grasp of leading-edge innovations and emerging companies developing and commercializing nano-enabled products. Engineered nanomaterial building blocks include inorganic nanoparticles, nanofibers, nanowires, quantum dots, nanotubes, nanoporous materials, dendrimers, plasmons, metamaterials, superlattices, metal organic frameworks, clays, nanocomposites, and the carbon-based nanotubes, graphene, fibers, fullerenes, and activated materials. These nanostructures are incorporated in bulk forms, coatings, films, inks, and devices. Graphene, the latest addition to the nanotech toolkit not only garnered the 2010 Nobel Prize (Geim and Nuvoselov) but also projected to extend Moore’s law in nanoelectronics. Nanobiomedical applications would allow targeted drug delivery in cancer treatment. Of course, nano-enabled products are expected to be competitive in terms of cost, performance and safety.
Two basic production technologies are utilized to fabricate nanomaterials. “Top down” techniques involve deposition technologies for in-situ nanoparticle fabrication and high energy milling techniques for mechanical alloying or simply beaten down to size. “Bottom up” approaches include self-assembly and nuclei seeding in gas, liquid or solid phases. However, production techniques still have to be refined to ensure that the nano advantages are available in finished products and not just in raw materials.
Nanotechnology enjoys generous funding support. Cientifica recently estimated that governments around the world invested $67 billion over the last 11 years and projected $0.25 trillion in investments from all sources by 2015! The USA is expected to spend about $1.7 billion in 2012 and $1.8 billion has been requested for 2013. I expect that nations will continue to pour significant funding into nanotechnology.
Companies need to understand that intellectual property is an important consideration and the IP landscape is getting busy. US patent publications in the 977 nanotech class established by the USPTO are expected to reach 4000 in 2012. There are also safety concerns. A global effort to gain a better understanding of ecological and health effects of nanomaterials is in place. Some regulations have already been implemented and companies are expected to adhere to good manufacturing practices while establishing protocols to monitor environmental effects.
Clean technologies, such as energy generation (solar), energy efficiency (lighting, green buildings), energy storage (batteries, supercapacitors), and environmental (pollution control) particularly stand to benefit from these nano-enabling advantages. Some of our portfolio companies are cleverly leveraging nanotechnology to deliver breakthroughs, such as, enabling EV cars to drive longer distances, saving lives by preventing hospital infections, delivering competitive solar energy and enabling sustainable electronics manufacturing.