Nanotechnology is opening the way to a new industrial revolution. From 'individualised' medical treatments tailored for each patient to new, environmentally-friendly energy storage and generation systems, nanotechnology is bringing significant advances. Exciting new futures await those businesses able to get ahead in the race to turn this wealth of promise into commercial success. But in a field which requires a high degree of coordinated effort involving many different stakeholder groups, including researchers, policymakers and commercial players across a wide variety of industrial sectors, it has perhaps been inevitable that fragmentation, disconnectedness and duplication have stood in the way.
NANOfutures was set up in 2010 to tackle exactly this problem of fragmentation. Supported by European Union (EU) funding, NANOfutures is a European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP) bringing together industry, research institutions and universities, NGOs, financial institutions, civil society and policymakers at regional, national and European levels. Acting as a kind of ‘nano-hub’ for Europe, NANOfutures is dedicated to fostering a shared vision and strategy on the future of nanotechnology.
Reflecting its objective of achieving a truly cross-sectoral approach, breaking out of individual industry silos and addressing the major nanotech issues which are common to all sectors, NANOfutures set up a steering committee which included representatives from 11 European Technology Platforms (ETPs) - sector-specific networks of industry and academia - including those for textiles, nanomedicine, construction and transportation. Chaired by Professor Paolo Matteazzi of Italian specialist nanomaterials company MBN Nanomaterialia, the committee also included ten nanotechnology experts, each one chairing a NANOfutures working group on cross-sectoral topics such as safety, standardisation, regulation, technology transfer and innovative financing.
This approach allowed NANOfutures to identify key aspects of nanotechnology and its exploitation in which all players - from researcher to politician, financier, commercial developer, regulator or end-user - were involved and therefore had common interests.
One of the major successes achieved by the two-year project was securing an agreement by all 11 ETPs on a set of research and innovation themes for the next decade. “The ETPs agreed to focus their private efforts, and call for increasing public efforts, on such themes in order to bring European nano-enabled products to successful commercialisation, with benefits for the grand challenges of our time such as climate change, affordable and effective medicine, green mobility and manufacturing,” says the project’s coordinator, Margherita Cioffi of Italian engineering consultancy D’Appolonia.
The most tangible result of this, and the key outcome from NANOfutures, was the development and publication of a ‘Research and Industrial Roadmap’ setting out, in Ms Cioffi’s words, “a pathway up to 2020 which will enable European industry and researchers to deliver and successfully commercialise sustainable and safe nano-enabled products.” Divided into seven separate thematic areas, or ‘value-chains’, the roadmap covers European priorities from materials research to product design, manufacturing, assembly, use and disposal. It describes both short- and longer-term actions with the aim of providing a practical guide for EC and Member State governments, research centres and industry, as well as standardisation and regulation bodies.
Other benefits directly resulting from the project, Ms Cioffi adds, were the sharing of safety best practices, the creation of partnerships to promote product development, training and other services, and the bringing together of relevant SME businesses with potential users and investors during specially organised Technology Transfer workshops.
Since it is not a product in itself, but a method with an enormous range of potential applications, nanotechnology naturally reaches into a diverse range of human activities. Paradoxically, almost, this very richness and universality of its benefits leads to a fragmentation of effort which acts as a barrier to its efficient exploitation. By bringing together the various stakeholders to create a unified, strategic approach, replacing fragmentation and duplication with a focus on areas of agreed priority and common interest, NANOfutures has played an invaluable role in promoting the rapid development of nanotechnology - with its twin benefits of societal usefulness and enhanced European competitiveness.