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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > What Do Small Nano Businesses Want for Christmas? Santa Says: Information, Resources, and Guidance

David Rejeski
Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Abstract:
With the holiday season already in full swing, you are probably going down your shopping list to figure out what to buy your favorite uncle or best friend this year. If your family or friend runs a small nanotechnology business, they are probably looking for something much more important and much more valuable, something that cannot be purchased in any store or on any website. They need information and guidance on how to address nanotechnology's potential environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks. To better understand how nanotechnology firms (especially small- and medium-size firms) are dealing with environmental, health and safety (EHS) management and what information they need to address risks proactively, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies helped to support a study, undertaken by University of Massachusetts Lowell researchers John Lindberg and Margaret Quinn, of New England-based nanotechnology firms.

December 20th, 2007

What Do Small Nano Businesses Want for Christmas? Santa Says: Information, Resources, and Guidance

With the holiday season already in full swing, you are probably going down your shopping list to figure out what to buy your favorite uncle or best friend this year. Another tie rack? A new pair of wool socks? How about a nano-engineered WaveRunner© for the boating fanatic in your life (1)?

However, if your family or friend runs a small nanotechnology business, they are probably looking for something much more important and much more valuable, something that cannot be purchased in any store or on any website. They need information and guidance on how to address nanotechnology's potential environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks.

Not even holiday spending, which has reached over $20 billion in online retailing for this season (2), can compare with the estimated $50 billion worth of nanotechnology manufactured goods that were sold on the global market last year (3). As time marches on, more and more companies—new and old, large and small—are capitalizing on the enhanced properties and new applications of materials and products enabled by nanotechnology. Companies operating in almost every sector of the economy face challenges in understanding and addressing the possible adverse effects of these new nanoscale materials. How they address potential risks, with what methods, and at what costs will have major impacts on their ability to commercialize nano-enabled products and processes over the next decade.

To better understand how nanotechnology firms (especially small- and medium-size firms) are dealing with environmental, health and safety (EHS) management and what information they need to address risks proactively, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies helped to support a study, undertaken by University of Massachusetts Lowell researchers John Lindberg and Margaret Quinn, of New England-based nanotechnology firms (4). New England was selected because the Northeast, particularly the area around the Boston metropolitan region, houses one of the greatest concentrations of companies, universities, government laboratories and organizations working in nanotechnology in the United States (5).

The survey, conducted by the authors of this paper, involved a two-step process: first, an online survey of 180 managers of nanotechnology firms; and, second, in-depth interviews with 12 of those firms. One of the firms that agreed to the follow-up interview is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the second United States city to consider an ordinance for reporting on nanomaterial production, use, and safety measures (6).

The survey produced two key findings. The first is that most nanotechnology firms recognize the existence of potential risks. The second, however, is that the firms (especially small firms) feel that they lack (a) information on the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials and (b) the necessary guidance from suppliers, industry, governmental regulatory bodies, and others to manage risks associated with these materials and processes. The companies also indicated that they would prefer to receive nano-relevant EHS risk information from suppliers, professional/industry/trade associations, and university technical assistance efforts and to access that information from web-based or electronic sources. The survey also found that:

• In general, firms that were taking steps to manage risk were relying on existing supplier data, expert judgment, best practices or current regulatory requirements as guidelines.
• Based on the responses, there is very limited product documentation in the form of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or product safety guidelines that specifically identify nanotechnology content or related EHS risk.
• Where EHS management systems have been implemented among survey participants, only one firm had distinctly incorporated nanotechnology-specific language in its EHS policy.

These findings raise some serious questions for policymakers tasked with the challenge of spurring innovation in a responsible and sustainable manner. How do we get appropriate risk research information in the hands of the people who need it the most (small companies manufacturing new products) but who have the least capacity to absorb it? How do we strategically put risk research in front of product flows to both inform oversight and regulatory strategies with good science and to provide businesses with important information about risks and benefits? Where is the vision that is needed to make all this happen?

A recent front-page article in The New York Times bore the headline, "Without U.S. Rules, Biotech Food Lacks Investors" (7). The findings from the survey outlined above suggest that many nanotechnology firms could face a similar fate. If we expect nanotechnology to deliver on its promise, innovative companies in the United States need not only clear guidance from government but also ready access to information on which to base sound business decisions concerning risk management. Much more effort needs to be expended to help businesses succeed as they bring innovative nanotechnology products to market.

If you find a way to buy that for Christmas, please let us know (and send your suggestions to Santa, National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Stafford II Room 405, Arlington, VA 22230).

References:

1. Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, 2007. Available at http://www.nanotechproject.org/index.php?id=44&action=view&product_id=1546 , accessed December 17, 2007.
2. Joseph Galante, "U.S. Online Sales Growth Slow Amid Holiday Slump," Bloomberg Online, December 14, 2007. Available at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=a_Lp1ZmqMUf8&refer=home , accessed December 17, 2007.
3. Lux Research, Inc. "Nanotechnology Moves from Discovery to Commercialization: $50 Billion in 2006 Product Sales, $12 Billion in Funding," November 20, 2007. Available at See http://www.luxresearchinc.com/press/2007-lux-research-nanotech-report-5.pdf , accessed December 17, 2007.
4. John E. Lindberg and Margaret M. Quinn, A Survey of Environmental, Health and Safety Risk Management Information Needs and Practices among Nanotechnology Firms in the Massachusetts Region, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, 2007. Available at http://www.nanotechproject.org/file_download/226 , accessed December 17, 2007.
5. Mapping the U.S. Nano Metro Economy, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, 2007. Available at http://www.nanotechproject.org/123 , accessed December 17, 2007.
6. Hiawatha Bray, "Cambridge Considers Nanotech Curbs," The Boston Globe, January 26, 2007. Available http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2007/01/26/cambridge_considers_nanotech_curbs/ , accessed December 17, 2007.
7. Andrew Pollack, "Without U.S. Rules, Biotech Food Lacks Investors," The New York Times, July 30, 2007. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/30/washington/30animal.html?_r=1&oref=slogin , accessed December 17, 2007.

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