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The nanotech industry is on a plateau. Not much progress has been made over the last twelve months in commercializing nanotechnology. Why? Social impedimenta - Environmental, Health and Safety concerns have held up rapid new nanoproduct introductions. And scaling to macro size win volume with quality and consistency has proved very difficult. But the Nano IPO market is opening up again.
May 25th, 2007
The Brief State of the Nanoworld in 2007 - Part 1
The Nanobusiness Alliance Conference (NAC) in New York in May was where to assess progress in nanotechnology commercialization and how rapidly economically significant nanoproducts (excluding semiconductors*) are appearing. The answers were "slowly in the United States, faster abroad especially in Asia" and "not as soon as most of us once thought."
CEO's and Presidents of small and large companies, with active nanotech programs, are always present at NAC - either on panels or speaking as keynoters. This year, major executives from Lockheed, Dupont, NanoDynamics, Nanotex, Nanophase, Nanosphere, Nanofilm, Nanosys, NanoSolar, NASDAQ, and others made comprehensive presentations with explicit plans and programs. Every economic group was represented - from Wall Street (sell side) to main street (buy side) to government to heavy industry to retail and consumer. NAC is three days of nanotechnology business outlook, not nanoscience, and that difference distinguishes.
Here are some NAC "take aways." The nanotech industry is on a plateau. Clearly, not much progress has been made over the last twelve months in commercializing nanotechnology. By commercializing I mean "putting multiple life (or process) changing nano- products into the marketplace for customers to purchase or to use in other products".
This year's conference was a time warp. Change the conference year to 2006 and an attendee would not have noticed a significant difference in products, results or outlook. In that one year little tangible competitive "new activity" was launched in the domestic market. The same companies were still talking about, and introducing, the same products with the same market projections ... only displaced a year further out. Anyone attending to find new and exciting nanostuff, had to be a little disheartened. On reflection, maybe the industry's lagging commercialization is a good long-term omen, inasmuch as during that time lag, some very real business and societal issues are being addressed and will shortly be answered to the entire industry's benefit.
Clearly, over the past year, social impedimenta held up rapid new nanoproduct introductions. One impediment has an acronym - EHS - or Environmental, Health and Safety. 2006 and 2007 were dominated by concerns about the environmental, health and safety of nanotechnology containing products. EHS issues raised caution flags … warning all CEOs to be judicious. Many so-called "do-gooder" organizations have written about the risks in nanotechnology with negative biases. These "alarmists" base their opinions on no agreed product standards or performance or testing specs but they write and talk about results with unsupported sureness tending to scare rather than to illuminate. Since negativity sells, these WAG papers and announcements have cornered the headlines. Groups such as Friends of the Earth (to which I belong) and the Woodrow Wilson groups have raised the specter of everlasting harm due to nanotech … that life itself would be threatened by using nanotech in any product without multi year long term life testing. In other words, these groups would have the industry not put any products on the market until years of testing had passed, without massive peer reviewed studies, and a burden of proof that few small companies could meet. Unfortunately, there really is inadequate data from which to draw any EHS conclusions, positive or negative. But fear of public or regulatory reprisal held up nanotech commercialization over the past year.
Commercialization was held up because of "difficulty." Scaling up from creating and testing a few samples of nanoproducts that show amazing performance to large scale production with commercial consistency is proving more difficult than anticipated Nanotech at macro scale is proving difficult to do! E.g. Producing volumes of untangled carbon nanotubes with consistent and repeatable performance to a high degree of concentration is a very difficult problem. It is far easier to start at macro scale and grind and disassemble materials down to the nanoscale. However handling those "nanoscale" particles is not a simple task for manufacturing or assembling departments. In short, when asking CEO's why "nanostuff" isn't out, between the hemming and hawing, you find two themes. EHS and difficulty in scaling up. No one mentioned finding the first paying customer or creating a market and self-generating growing demand. Those are yet to come.
The last insight that came out of the NAC conference was a possible resurgence of the domestic Nanotech IPO market that has been dormant for over four years. NanoDynamics is raising $100 million through an IPO under the capable hands of Jefferies and Company. This IPO is the first attempt to go to the public for financing by a promising significant nanotech company since the ill fated attempt by Nanosys, Inc. four years ago. As readers of this column know, I have continually pushed for the involvement of Wall Street and the public as alternative sources of funds for the nanotechnology industry and as competition for the Venture Capitalists who up to now have been cherry picking the best nanotech companies leaving the others out to dry. It is good to see the balance beginning to return. If this IPO is successful, I am confident that we will see many more IPO's for domestic nanocompanies within the next 12 -18 months. A successful NanoDynamics IPO could be one of the best things to happen to the domestic nanotech industry in years. I will keep you up to date on the NanoDynamics IPO monthly.
Alan B. Shalleck
© 2007 Nanoclarity LLC. All rights reserved
*Semiconductors at nano size are just an incremental extension of Moore's Law.