Turning the nanotech promise into commercial reality
Nanotechnology offers human society a vast range of benefits, making possible startling advances in everything from medicines and cosmetics to energy generation, electronics and even 'hi-tech' clothing. What is more, this nanotechnology 'revolution' is still only in its infancy. Research into ever more applications is in full swing.
The problem is that too little of this research is being translated into commercial success – into end-products we can use and benefit from. In the words of PRONANO’s project coordinator, Francisco de Aristegui of Zabala Innovation Consulting in Spain: “Too few projects from European Union (EU) Framework Programmes 6 and 7 generate results with a high degree of commercialisation readiness. There is an overweight of research activities compared to innovation results actually reaching the market in most European countries.”
Supported by €1 million of EU funding, the two-year PRONANO Coordination and Support Action (CSA) was set up in 2010 to help bridge that gulf between exciting potential and disappointing reality.
Bringing together 10 innovation consultancies and early-stage venture financing companies from six European countries, PRONANO worked with a group of nanotechnology research projects to identify and overcome the barriers standing between innovation and commercial success. In addition to the direct benefits for the projects themselves, the fundamental aim of PRONANO was to identify ways of strengthening European policy in the area of research and innovation support – in particular through the Horizon 2020 initiative.
PRONANO identified 50 potential nanotechnology-related business opportunities, of which 30 were selected for support in translating their research results into commercial development. By the end of the project, 10 of these had succeeded in creating spin-off companies, securing licensing agreements, or obtaining some other form of investment, representing a remarkable 20% success rate from the original 50 opportunities. In addition, the investment inflows facilitated by PRONANO amounted to 17 times the original EU funding provided to the project.
Among the 10 successful projects were one which had developed a sponge-like nanomaterial with the potential to improve water quality monitoring, one which had developed an anti-glare coating for glasses, photo lenses and other optical devices, based on the natural coatings found on the eyes of insects, while a third was involved in the creation of biomedical carbons which can be used, among other purposes, for wound treatment and blood filtration.
As a result of the experience gained during the PRONANO project, says Mr de Aristegui, various barriers to successful commercial exploitation of apparently promising nanotechnology innovations were identified. Among these, public support programmes did not adequately recognise the complexity of the innovation process, suffering in particular from a lack of support provided for the key stages of product development and business model development. For their part, researchers lacked knowledge of their end-use markets. With no true idea whether their technology had a real-world application they tended to adopt a ‘technology-push’ approach, creating nanotech ‘solutions’ for problems which had yet to be identified.
A further barrier arose from the sheer multiplicity of possible applications of nanotechnology, with many researchers developing technology without focusing on specific markets. “If you want to have any business chance, you have to choose and specialise, and be efficient on the most promising market option,” says Mr de Aristegui.
Other important barriers included the failure to plan early enough in the research project for its eventual commercialisation, and a lack of understanding of nanotechnology among investors, many of whom fear a repeat of the infamous dot.com bubble.
Identifying these barriers allowed the PRONANO partners to formulate and present a series of specific, detailed recommendations for Europe to follow in the future. Key among these was ensuring the integration of business-oriented support from an early stage in the project. “If we want excellence in innovation, then we must involve excellent innovation professionals,” says Mr de Aristegui. “It is wrong to assume everybody can write a credible exploitation plan. This is also a specific skillset that should be required in the consortium,” he adds.
It is a skillset which could play a crucial role in maximising Europe’s future competitiveness.