The view from the industry

As a change of pace at the end of a long and at times difficult day, we had a great talk from Steffi Friedrichs, Director of the Nanotechnology Industries Association, giving a forward look about where her members see the major application opportunities for nanotechnologies on a 10-15 year timescale, and how the outcome of this Ideas Factory could contribute to or drive forward these opportunities. The NIA is a relatively newly established organisation, based in the UK, with UK government support and encouragement, but including a number of major multinationals as well as smaller startups. All their members, though, are distinguished by the fact that they make, or are thinking of making, products, using nanotechnologies. Steffi was looking well ahead of current commercialised applications in nanomaterials, to possible functional devices and integrated systems with applications in areas such as energy, healthcare and medicine, particularly, in the latter area, the ideas of the combination of nanoscale sensors and point-of-delivery synthesis which are implicit in the increasingly fashionable area of theranostics.

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9 Responses to “The view from the industry”


  1. 1 Martin G. Smith January 10, 2007 at 12:03 am

    I would suggest there stands a risk that this technology is going to get bogged down in, simply put, RISK. There should be a democratization of this new field and clear and forthright dissemination of any and all information which comes down the pipe. Then if the public does not know, they should be informed and from that informed base, be able to make a decision as to the usefulness of any new technology in their lives. If we let the marketers and the lawyer bog this progress down, we are lost. We have the opportunity for a great revolution, let us not let the Suits get hold of it and ruin it.

  2. 2 Chris Phoenix January 10, 2007 at 6:36 am

    I’m observing a tie-in between this post’s forecast of “possible functional devices and integrated systems” and the discussion about synthetic biology that followed the previous post. I will use this to argue that the styles of today’s nanotechnology and synthetic chemistry, for similar reasons, cannot be the foundation of a matter compiler.

    Both synthetic chemistry and today’s (and apparently tomorrow’s) nanotechnology cover a very broad range of possibilities–synthetic steps and nanoscale phenomena–but can’t easily integrate hundreds of them into a product. A seemingly more limited approach can actually supply us with more choices.

    Synthetic chemistry uses a vast array of techniques for flexibility. The alternative is to develop a few atom-deposition techniques in a setting that allows them to have extremely high yield–then use them over and over again to create big molecules. Look at it numerically: 20^5 (the number of five-step syntheses from a palette of 20 options) is far smaller than 5^20, and 1000^10 (= 10^30) is far smaller than 10^1000. If there’s anything like an inverse relationship between the number of reactions in your toolbox and the yield of the average operation, you’ll gain far more flexibility by improving the yield than by improving the number of choices. DNA synthesis can build any of 10^1000 molecules–many of which fold into structures–with high yield.

    Organic and synthetic chemistry fills libraries. But I’d guess that a single sheet of paper would be sufficient to list the families of molecules with more than 1000 atoms that can be made precisely in high yield. This is why I say that the synthetic chemistry approach can’t build a matter compiler. Note that I’m not arguing here against solution chemistry, nor against the few very-high-yield synthetic reactions. Rothemund’s DNA-staple technique is perhaps the closest thing we have to a matter compiler today.

    Today’s nanotechnology is very broad, with lots of exciting research on lots of fronts, but it hasn’t produced many applications or products yet. It’s just plain difficult to characterize a new technology, get it working in a broad context, and integrate it with numerous others–whether that technology is a chemical synthetic step or a nanostructure. Better to choose a small family of techniques that can be applied over and over again, and characterized with full precision; broad flexibility can emerge from the huge number of choices and (well-characterized!) products that approach will create.

    If this argument seems to have merit, think about combining it with the argument I made a few days ago–that a nanoscale structure-forming process which can be described by continuous equations probably will not be useful for atom-precise fabrication. How much of nanotechnology is left? What else can be pared away from that?

    Chris

  3. 3 Richard Jones January 10, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Martin, your point is well taken, and that’s one of the main reasons that we chose as one of the mentors a non-scientist whose main interest is precisely this issue – Jack Stilgoe, from Demos, is very much driven by this issue of the democratisation of science and technology.

    Chris, it’s obvious of course that I’m being very cagy about what’s actually being said and how the projects are forming, since we are still in a fluid and delicate stage. But it’s certainly possible to say that the approaches that are being hammered out are not synthetic biology as usually understood, they’re certainly not conventional synthetic chemistry, and I don’t think they’re like a lot of conventional nanotechnology.

  4. 4 Chris Phoenix January 10, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    Richard, I appreciate the feedback. I hadn’t realized that there’d be stages where you couldn’t report in detail. Thanks for giving as much information as you could about what’s happening within those walls.

    Chris

  5. 5 Martin G. Smith January 11, 2007 at 1:39 am

    Richard – Many thanks for the feedback, I did some research into Demos and have added them to my crew’s To Do List. I am embracing nanotechnology as a leap forward in the work that I do. I do not suggest that it will be the Eureka to solve the problems my people face, but the potential for teacing is incredible and that is where we are heading. You will find my Bias clearly declared on my Blog
    Chris – As always, well searched, well found, well spoken. Good to meet you once again on another venue.

  6. 6 George Elvin January 11, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Martin Smith’s warning that, “If we let the marketers and the lawyers bog this progress down, we are lost,” caught my attention. How many times have I heard the marketers and the lawyers say, “If we let the public bog this progress down, we are lost”?

    So I was very encouraged by the fact that you invited the NIA’s director to speak at your academic retreat. Too often academics, businesspeople, NGOs and politicians exclude outsiders at these events and miss the essential opportunity to see across the boundaries that really do bog down progess.

    Best of luck with the projects, which I hope will also have a strong interdisciplinary emphasis.

  7. 7 Martin G. Smith January 11, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    George – Richard made the point very clearly in bringing in Jack Stilgoe from Demos. Perhaps I was a bit to Shakespearian in mentioning those particular professions. My main point was that we should not allow the need to placate every agenda presented before declaring that any particular project can go forward.
    The one thing about this technology that is different than any which has come before it, is the number of people watching, and learning about it. I suggest that if a Risk presents, it will be caught and mitigated long before it ever gets out.
    Gone are the days of the Manhattan Project when the team went blindly forward, knowing what they were seeing on the Blackboard, but not really knowing what to expect when it worked. Hence, there was a lot of regret when they observed the result.
    The most important task in all of this, I suggest, is to keep the lines of communication open, think of community benefit as a goal, primary over profit and go forward together.

  8. 8 George Elvin January 15, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    Martin, I like your last point about community benefit. It’s fascinating how in any human endeavor we all put community benefit first in our hearts, yet when we get to the marketplace profit takes precedence. I suppose it’s partly the structure of capitalism, which sets shareholder profits as the main priority for most businesses.

    So I agree with you that keeping communication open is critical, which is why I applauded the interdisciplinary nature of this conference. Now, I wonder, what will the business community, and Ms. Friedrichs specifically, take back to industry?

  9. 9 Martin G. Smith January 15, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    George – I must declare a bias, I come from a family with a long add deep affliction of altruism. It is a word I have heard spoken often accompanied with a barrage of spittle from the speaker. I was taught early on, by my Scottish Parents no less, to consider the long term benefits and/or risks of any decision I made.
    This rule has stood me in good stead for many a year and at one point literally cost me an extensive piece of my freedom. It is from this history I, today act. I watch how, too often, decisions are made while putting cost over the overall benefit to any specific individual and/or society as a whole. I can expound at length with examples where I was called in to apply the ‘Rational Eye’ and assess a given situation with a ‘Clean Look’.
    The one thing I suggest is paramount in the final analysis of this Sandpit, is that it is not about the academics, the government, or even the industry – it is about all of them, and the community they serve.
    Remembering there would not be schools without the human voracity to gain knowledge – there would not be government if their employers, the community, decided they were redundant – and there would not be businesses without the customers to support them.
    Ms. Friedrichs and, I suggest, everyone needs to be continually reminded of this.
    The EPSRC, by virtue of its stated mandate, has enacted, through the Ideas Factory and many other activities, a catalyst which must be, and has been recognized far beyond the borders of the UK. For myself, I am grateful for this initiative for it has shown the crew I deal with daily that there is an alternative to the endless cycle, the only thing being needed is to hitch a ride on the Highway of Light.


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