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National Nanotechnology Investment: Manufacturing, Commercialization & Job Creation

on July 18, 2011 Source: Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship

PDE staff were on hand for a Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space hearing on Capitol Hill on July 14. Our report of the hearing follows:

Last Thursday, members of the Subcommittee on Science and Space met to discuss the reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) with a witness panel of five experts in the revolutionary field of nanotechnology. Created in 2000, the NNI has facilitated communication and collaboration between 25 federal agencies involved in groundbreaking nanotechnology research. Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) stated in his opening remarks that the government’s investment in nanotechnology in the form of the NNI “has translated into U.S. global leadership in nanotechnology research..., development and commericalization” and has proven to be “a very wise move.”

The experts’ testimony confirmed and further illuminated the many payoffs of the initial investment. For instance, Dr. Chad A. Mirkin, Director of the Northwestern University International Institute for Nanotechnology, told the subcommittee members about his three nanotech companies – Nanosphere, NanoInk, and AuraSense – that employ hundreds of people and “represent… some of the first real dividends from the early investments in the NNI.” Dr. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, Director of the West Virginia Nano Initiative, similarly acknowledged the NNI’s impact on her work, claiming that “[it] had a huge impact on moving [her] research from very fundamental to more applied.” Both of their statements and that of their peers highlighted the substantial advances that are brining the U.S. closer to harnessing the potential of nanotechnology to transform society and address pressing problems in health care, energy, the environment, and electronics.

One major concern expressed at the hearing was the possibility of the U.S. losing its position as the leader in nanotechnology. Countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Germany are making significant progress and could soon surpass the U.S. in the field. Dr. Mirkin issued a warning that was echoed by his colleagues:

“The rest of the world now understands the importance of the field and many countries are building efforts that rival what has been established by the NNI. This includes dozens of institutes throughout Asia, the Mideast, and Europe. If the United States does not act now and aggressively pursue development of nanoscience and nanotechnology, we will lose our position as the global leader in this transformative field; moreover, and maybe more importantly, we will lose the opportunities it can afford us to build our economy and new manufacturing base.“

The consensus among the experts is that the U.S. must renew and expand the NNI to maintain its lead. Dr. Mirkin outlined the following three areas that need to be addressed over the next decade:

  1. Strengthening the management of the NNI
  2. Developing strategies for future investment in both research and education/training
  3. Dealing with environment, health, and safety issues potentially posed by nanotechnology

With regards to the second point, Dr. Mirkin suggested that the NNI should focus on both basic research and its translation into commercializable products. More specifically, he recommended that “[the agencies] should enhance [their] focus on commercialization and double [their] investment in nanomanufacturing over the next five years, while maintaining the current level of investment in basic research.” Dr. Thomas O’Neal, the Associate Vice President for Research and Commercialization at the University of Central Florida, reiterated this recommendation and mentioned the role of entrepreneurs and small businesses in leading advances in nanotechnology. He proposed that the NNI provide help and compliance for entrepreneurs and “make it user friendly” as “it is really daunting for faculties to start companies when they have to figure out all this compliance stuff in real time.” In her testimony, Dr. Leslie-Pelecky discussed the importance of funding agencies coordinating their efforts to accommodate proposals that do not fit neatly in one area and emphasized the necessity of education. Dr. George L. McLendon, the Howard R. Hughes Provost and Professor of Chemistry at Rice University, informed the subcommittee of the success of a shared equipment initiative in Texas and recommended the expansion of such a practice to more effectively utilize investments.

[Reported by Devin Hardee]

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