North Carolina showcases advances but still faces challenges in commercializing nanotech
Winston-Salem, N.C. — Despite dissolvable knee and leg screws and other innovations featured at the annual Nanotechnology Commercialization Conference , North Carolina and the country face many challenges in growing the nano industry.
In fact, until the private sector can ramp up commercialization, the academic and public sector will continue to lead the nano sector.
That point was made clear at the fifth annual Nanotechnology Commercialization Conference in Winston Salem where a variety of North Carolina and national leaders in nano discussed innovations, funding trends and networked towards the goal of growing the nano sector nationwide.
“North Carolina is already a leader in nanotech commercialization,” said John Hardin, Executive Director of the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Office of Science & Technology.” “But since nanotechnology became a real commercial opportunity beginning about 10 years ago, lots of countries and other states have focused significant resources on developing their nano-based economies. This conference is just one way North Carolina is maintaining its lead and accelerating innovation and commercialization in nanotech.”
Former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen led off the conference as someone with feet in both the public and private sectors. Allen co-authored the legislation that created the National Nanotechnology Initiative that has led to billions of dollars of federally funded nano research, and he promoted the potential improvement in the quality of life through the development of nanomaterials in everyday life. Allen is very involved in the nano space through a board seat on a Texas company called NanoTox.
Federal Investment into Nano
Fortunately, the federal government remains a big and growing supporter of nanotech.
According to Dr. Mihail Roco, Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology to the National Science Foundation (NSF), 27 different agencies are involved in the nano sector from NSF, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense and more. The annual budget for nano research has increased from $464 million in 2001 to $1.76 billion in fiscal year 2013. The federal government has invested over $650 million in Small Business and Innovative Research (SBIR) Grants.
To prove how nano has impacted the world in a short period of time, Roco used the example of the promise that scientists made in 2000 that the contents of the Library of Congress would fit on a memory device the size of a sugar cube by the year 2025, yet this has already been accomplished and easily surpassed by the year 2013.
Roco also discussed the challenges of the industry by telling about the closing of NanoInk and other nano related companies and the controversy around the sale of the intellectual property of A123 Battery, a Boston based company, to a company based in China.
According to media reports, A123 Battery accepted $249 million in investments and only sold to the Chinese for $256 million within the last year. To lessen the threat of losing military related intellectual property, A123 only sold the automotive related piece of the business and sold it to the US based division of Wanxiang Group with 3,000 employees in the US. A123 Battery supplies the battery for the Chevrolet hybrid car and one of the Fisker produced cars.
University-Based Innovation and Infrastructure Related to Nano
North Carolina is making major investments as well.
Forty-five minutes west of Durham on I-40 is the latest and greatest North Carolina investment into nanotechnology with the Joint School of NanoScience and NanoEngineering, a cooperative agreement between UNC Greensboro and NC A&T State University on Lee St in Greensboro. This $56.3 million dollar investment by the state of North Carolina has 105,000 square feet of space with four available degree programs in nanoscience and nanoengineering. 63 students are currently taking Masters and PhD classes. Among the nano related subjects being studied and researched include biology, metrology, bioelectronics and energy.
Among the assets of the Joint School of Nano include a helium ion microscope, one of a handful in the country and the only one in the southeast. Access to this exclusive equipment has led to the formation of a new company called Lacuma Technologies to work on nanopore fabrication, according to Dr. Dan Herr of the Joint School of Nano.
When asked what Dr. Herr and the Joint School of Nano needed to help the new nano institution succeed at a higher level quicker, Herr responded
“1. A better understanding of the needs of potential local industry partners.
“2. More industry related people to tour the new facility to better understand the research and development capabilities.
“3. A better connection to the regional school to share the capabilities of the equipment at the nano institution.”
But Professor Jag Sankar from North Carolina A&T State University brought the message home when he began to describe the work on metallic biomaterials. Most of us have a friend or relative that has had an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) knee surgery. NC A&T is working on a knee screw made from magnesium that will eventually dissolve when no longer needed which eliminates the need for multiple knee surgeries and help reduce health care costs.
With more than 30 university-based centers and institutes focusing on various aspects of nano, North Carolina has one of the strongest and most diverse portfolios in nano R&D in the nation. As the three university speakers illustrated with their remarks at the conference, the universities are increasingly partnering with industry to commercialize new technologies and enhance existing technologies.
Spinout Success at Wake Forest
A potential shining light for commercialization has a strong N.C. connection.
David Carroll of Wake Forest University is one of those people that are better known outside of the North Carolina state borders as one of the most published researchers in nanomaterials. As one of the leaders of the nano sector in Winston Salem, he is one of the cohosts of this event in his backyard.
As a keynote speaker to begin the second day of the conference, Dr. Carroll described his 12 patents and has four spinout companies from his Center of Nanotech and Molecular Materials in the Department of Physics.
PowerFelt is probably his best known innovation that was recently featured in the NY Times and shown on CNN as a young researcher was shown running on a track as the nanomaterial energized the person’s iPod.
His other innovations are the basis of companies such as COELite (competitor to Organic Light Emitting Diodes), Camel City Solar, NanoTech Labs (a nanotube manufacturer), PureLux and Orthovative Technologies (a new device to help with back posture).
Orthovative Technologies presented to the investor showcase at Square One Bank at the 2012 Nano Conference in Durham and has since won awards at local business plan competitions.
Now, North Carolina and the country need more “David Carrolls” to come forward – and the private sector needs to buy in. At that point, the business of small materials will become very big.
Editor’s note: Jim Roberts was involved in starting technology entrepreneur bootcamps in Charlotte in 2000, started the entrepreneurial council and angel investor network in Asheville and has worked for NC Department of Commerce and Center of Innovation for NanoBiotechnology (COIN) since moving to the Triangle in 2008. Jim is founder of RedSpire Connections, a consulting firm for business development, lead generation, marketing and a leader of industry related events. Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @RedSpireUSNC.