Brussels, 13 Jan 2004
Some 1000 people took part in EuroNanoForum 2003 in December 2003. The four-day Commission event provided an open debate on the state of the art in nanotechnologies to help reinforce public funding of this key area.
The forum in Trieste, Italy brought together key players from around the globe in public administration, research, education, industry, banking, financing, social sciences and the media. Participants were asked to identify technical and non-technical barriers to the expansion and reinforcement of nanosciences in general, and to the formulation, development, application and use of nanotechnology-based products and services.
Key role for innovation
Innovation has a key role to play in improving European competitiveness. There can be no development without innovation – and no innovation without research, which requires resources. But, however good the science, there is also a major need for entrepreneurs to turn that knowledge into commercial success. Public funding can play a major role in this process. Key ideas identified during the event included:
- Funding nanotechnology research projects with application potential;
- Research institutes playing a wider role by taking ideas from basic research to the production set-up state,
- Help for entrepreneurs to get their ideas out of the laboratory by reducing risk. This should include organising smaller-scale venture capital funding – most venture capital organisations prefer big projects as it is costly to evaluate any project – and providing support for full industrialisation;
- Educating technologists in finance and marketing – it makes more sense to start with the technologies as the possibilities are better understood; and
- Public funding to increase networking at international level, both to ensure critical mass on topics of mutual interest and to avoid a 'knowledge apartheid'.
The need to educate the public in the benefits – and possible risks – of nanotechnologies was also highlighted. Nanotechnologies have already made remarkable progress in the health area with new biosensors speeding cancer diagnosis, development of self-addressing drugs, improved biocompatibility to avoid rejection, and the availability of new methods of curing cancer. But there are societal concerns about nanorobots. It is essential therefore to communicate realistic information to the public in this area.
Designing at the molecular level is leading to remarkable improvements in material functionality – from nanocomposites to new car exhaust catalysers using quantum mechanics – but it is essential to extend multidisciplinarity and to be able to manipulate materials at the atomic level. The invention of new instruments is helping change knowledge from qualitative to quantitative. However, there is a requirement to provide a more uniform approach to intellectual property protection – a particular burden on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The microelectronics industry is a key driver for nanotechnologies as the industry is already well down the processing route. The need here is to change switching paradigms to manipulate single electrons and rethink logic patterns. Nanotechnologies also have an important role in resolving energy problems – likely to be the largest problem for mankind in the next decade. However, this requires better co-operation between bottom-up and top-down approaches, as well as the availability of large-scale test facilities.
Planning European funding
"This event was designed to open doors," said Ezio Andreta, director for Industrial Technologies in the European Commission Research Directorate-General in the closing session. "It set out to assess where we are and is intended to result in a Communication by spring 2004 to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to convince European authorities of the need to invest in this area following EU enlargement. European research budgets are already starting to be established for 2006 to 2011."
At a world level, resources are increasing. Global investment in this area has grown from around €1 billion to €5 billion in just three years; of the €5 billion, €3 billion was from public authorities. And, at the beginning of December, President Bush signed an agreement for public funding of $3.7 billion (€2.9 billion) for nanotechnologies in the USA for the next four years. Private investment in nanotechnologies has been mainly through the microelectronics industry and particularly through SMEs in areas such as health, materials, space and transport. But there has been less investment in areas like energy and the environment.
Lack of risk investment
Dr Andreta highlighted several problems, not least risk investment. "Some 80% of current industry is old, using only incremental innovation, while nanotechnologies involve radical change," he pointed out. "Education will play an increasing role in incubation. Spin-off companies have problems such as identifying markets and finding capital for both cash flow and equity. This is not helped by venture capital companies that also have 'old' ideas and criteria for risk assessment.
"We need more powerful research infrastructures; no single state or industry can afford this any more," he added. "Education is also too linear, resulting in specialists who are not suitable for multidisciplinary research. And this lack is in more than just science, education is also needed in economics and marketing. We need to reconcile science and society.
"Society is becoming a major driver of our research and in a more responsible and sustainable way. Society needs education and dialogue – but this must be a permanent tripartite dialogue between society, researchers and public authorities at all levels: local, national and international."
Full details on the forum presentations, six ad-hoc workshops, exhibition and poster session can be found on the EuroNanoForum 2003 website. The Commission is also preparing a draft action plan that will be made available on the Internet for comment.