A Nanotechnology Now column by Skip Rung, President and Executive Director of ONAMI argues that the US is losing its manufacturing base and stifling nanotechnology innovation “with increasingly wrongheaded and costly regulatory barriers”, and recommends a focused regulatory approach to green nanotechnology to remedy the problem. From “Getting our Groove Back in Manufacturing Innovation: Nanomaterials, Green Nanotechnology and Policy Uncertainty“:
…Intel CEO Paul Otellini has said “it costs $1 billion more per factory for me to build, equip, and operate a semiconductor manufacturing facility in the United States.” He has also said that not long ago “our research centers were without peer. No country was more attractive for start-up capital. We seemed a generation ahead of the rest of the world in information technology. That simply is no longer the case.”
Capital markets (and with them our leadership in IPOs) are fleeing the U.S., with the latest development being the acquisition of the NYSE by Deutsche Börse. Having learned nothing from the impact of punishing the innocent with Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress has unleashed an open-ended rulemaking frenzy under Dodd-Frank. Who knows what that will bring, but it’s a safe bet it will work out well for large organizations like GE while entrepreneurs and real innovators are losers again. And as always, tighter environmental regulations and data requirements are promised (ostensibly to ‘crack down’ on polluters, though the more likely result is that better replacement innovations simply won’t even be attempted). …
So despite the Einsteinian insanity of arguing yet again for sensible innovation policy, let’s connect all of this with why nanotechnology (other than via Moore’s Law, a battery, three protein/liposome/polymer cancer drugs, and some low-impact consumer applications) has not yet lived up to its hype, at least as measured by venture capital investment, successful investor exits (A123 and ???) and high-wage job creation in the U.S. (A123 and ???). …
Except for the biggest and lowest risk opportunities (e.g. better drop-in replacement batteries with one new component, blockbuster drugs) the process can’t even get going when small companies have to pay big company prices for regulatory compliance to access a small initial opportunity (consistent with limited ability to ramp production), and both investors and customers find the cost, risk and uncertainty hurdles too high to overcome. This is compounded by the worsening U.S. environment for startups and investors. It is small wonder, really, that the two-year old ‘recovery’ certainly doesn’t feel like one in the hardware/materials manufacturing sector.
But nanotechnology and nanomaterials, along with the production techniques to deliver them, are still new compared to the chemical industry, and there is still hope that badly needed societal innovation might occur in support of enabling their economic and social benefits. One thing that is clearly required is a far more enabling regime for startups and low-volume first applications. One possible scenario for this is a fast-track, light-regulatory-touch path for green nanotechnology: nanomaterials and nanomanufacturing developments conducted according to the principles of green chemistry. Another way to say this is safe-by-design (to the extent possible, based on what we know) products produced by green-by-design manufacturing processes.
Progress has been made on this vision, and we’re ready to discuss concrete criteria for what constitutes green nanotechnology, standard/simplified characterization protocols and enabling policies. And that’s exactly what we intend to do at GN11, Greener Nano 2011, May 2-3 at Hewlett-Packard’s Cupertino site in the heart of Silicon Valley. We’re assembling a great program and attendance of the right people and organizations to “Advance Applications and Reduce Risks” – including the risk of not innovating in the first place.
There is no time to lose, because other countries (especially in Asia) seem determined to win the opportunity to lead in 21st century manufacturing.
Skip Rung is certainly addressing an important problem. As someone who has followed nanotechnology closely since 1986, I have to say that, despite substantial advancements in nanoscience and nanotechnology, progress has been disappointing in two areas: (1) there has not been major investment in developing advanced nanotechnology (high throughput productive nanosytems) based on the Feynman vision as articulated by Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, and Robert Freitas; (2) advances in nanotechnology have not launched a large and rapidly growing nanotechnology industry in the way that advances in semiconductor manufacturing and integrated circuits launched the computer industry. A vibrant industry focused on near- and intermediate-term applications advances the technology base needed to develop advanced applications. Many early nanotechnology enthusiasts were drawn from the computer industry because they perceived the possibility of a parallel course for nanotechnology development. However, the anemic growth we have witnessed in nanotechnology reminds me more of the biotech industry. When I was in the early phase of my career as a molecular biology researcher 35 years ago, the development of recombinant DNA technology inspired the hope that learning to produce in bacteria otherwise difficult or impossible to obtain molecules like interferons would launch a huge biotech industry that would rival the size and importance of the computer industry. Actual growth, while real, was much more modest because it turned out we had only scratched the surface of the necessary underlying science. The immune system was much more complicated than we realized, the genome was a vast, unexplored frontier, and the existence of such crucial phenomena as epigenetic regulation and RNA interference was unsuspected. Has the growth of the nanotechnology industry been slow because we are still as ignorant of nanoscience as we were of biology in 1976? Or is Skip Rung correct that government policies are at fault? There are clearly significant environmental, health, and safety issues with some nanomaterials that need to be managed so that we do not create a public relations nightmare for the fledgling nanotechnology industry. Can government provide necessary regulation without strangling innovation?