Harnessing Nanotechnology to Drive the New Global Economy
Last Thursday, April 24, nanotechnology entrepreneur Anita Goel, founder of Medford, MA-based Nanobiosym, testified on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Innovation. Following is an adaptation of Goel’s testimony.
Nanotechnology to me is the ability to probe and control matter and systems on increasingly finer scales, at the nanoscale and smaller. This is important because it gives us a new level of control over matter. Nanotechnology is a platform science which combines several traditional fields such as physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. The applications that stem from these capabilities likewise cut across several different sectors from medicine and energy to the environment and materials science. For example, the ability to control the assembly and arrangement of atoms and molecules in a nanomaterial could give it the durability of steel and the weight of plastic.
Nanotechnology provides a platform for innovation across conventional boundaries of science, technology, and commerce. Furthermore, by its intrinsic multidisciplinary nature, it fosters collaboration across conventional political and economic boundaries.
Nanobiosym was founded as an idea lab and research institute to innovate at the convergence of physics, medicine, and nanotechnology. Nanobiosym, and its commercial partner Nanobiosym Diagnostics, have been privately developing Gene-RADAR, a portable nanotechnology-enabled platform that can rapidly and accurately detect genetic fingerprints from any biological organism. The company’s vision is to give patients worldwide real-time access to their own diagnostic information via low-cost handheld devices.
Nanobiosym has been the direct beneficiary of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. We have received multiple rounds of competitive funding grants as some of our technology platforms transitioned from the pure R&D stage to the more applied or prototyping stage. Without the resources that the Initiative brought to bear—not only funding, but also coordination and a sense of national priority—Nanobiosym would not be where it is today.
As the Subcommittee considers how best to update and improve the Initiative, I hope that our experience as an emerging nanotechnology company (in moving across the gamut from science and technology innovation, to proof of concept development and developing commercial products for global markets) will help identify what has worked well and what could be improved to encourage other companies like us.
A Roadmap for Harnessing Nanotechnology to Drive the New Global Economy
The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act focused primarily on basic research. This led to dynamic growth in America’s nanotechnology research infrastructure primarily in academic settings, and sowed the seeds of nanotechnology commercialization throughout the country.
Today, five years later, we are beginning to see the results of this initial investment, as nanotechnology-enabled products start to enter the marketplace across the spectrum of industry sectors, from water purification to materials engineering to healthcare. The growth of the next five years could be exponential. The United States has a historic opportunity to drive nanotechnology to maximize its impact on global challenges, including health, environment, energy, and even building the new global economy.
The reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative should focus on four new areas in addition to basic research:
1. Nanotechnology Education
If America is going to compete effectively in the global nanotechnology revolution, we need a highly skilled and qualified workforce. We need scientists, engineers, and technicians who have a vision for nanotechnology, seek to innovate with it, and are capable of working at the nanoscale. We need professors and teachers who can educate about the nano world, and we need business professionals who can turn the scientists’ work into useful products. It is already difficult to meet the demand for PhDs with nanotechnology backgrounds, and that demand will only increase in the coming years.
Nanotechnology education, like nanotechnology research, is necessarily multidisciplinary. Because nanotechnology spans physics, materials science, chemistry, and biology, it needs to be taught throughout the science curriculum. And like other subjects, nanotechnology is best learned by doing. Programs that improve access to basic nanotechnology tools will help inspire a new generation of students to pursue careers in science because they will be able to see firsthand nanotechnology’s potential.
Our education system must start transcending conventional boundaries between academic disciplines, between academic and corporate training programs, and between U.S. and international training experiences. I would suggest the creation of more international exchange programs. Just as other countries send their students here, we should start sending our people around the world to be trained not only in nanotechnology but its broader international context.
The reauthorization bill will be an excellent investment in America’s future if it promotes nanotechnology education from grade school through graduate school. If it does not, we will continue to rely in the short term on foreign science students who will often end up returning to their home countries to compete against us after completing their studies.
2. Bridging the Gap Between Nanotechnology Research and Commercialization
America’s competitiveness in the global market is being tested in the field of nanotechnology, where Russia, China, Japan, the European Union, and other nations are making major investments in translating basic research into … Next Page »