Heady days of nanotech funding behind it, the U.S. faces big challenges

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Nearly a decade after the U.S. launched its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the program’s $12 billion in funding has helped place the country at the head of the pack regarding the development of science and technology measured in billionths of meters. Yet, despite the U.S.’s unrivaled adeptness at patenting nanotech inventions, the country’s lackluster track record of bringing nano-scale technology products to market leaves the door open for China, Russia and other tech-savvy countries to challenge U.S. nanotech supremacy, according to a new report by Boston’s Lux Research.

The report, released Wednesday, contains much of the same data as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s (PCAST) March 12 report (pdf) assessing the NNI. Not surprising, given that Lux research director Michael Holman participated in PCAST’s NNI evaluation. Lux’s report takes the matter a bit further, however, with lead author and research associate David Hwang analyzing 19 countries competing in the emerging nanotech field and breaking down their ability to innovate as well as commercialize those inventions.

Hwang notes that global investment in nanotech held about steady last year despite tough economic times, drawing $17.6 billion from governments, corporations and investors in 2009, a 1 percent increase over 2008. Nanotech companies should take care to spend this money wisely because this deep-pocketed spending is not likely to last much longer. Venture capitalists—the investors whose money is often required to take technology from the lab and put it in consumers’ hands—have already dialed back their support, cutting investments by 43 percent relative to 2008, and NNI funding is expected to drop by 20 percent this year. New money for nanotech projects will have to come from funding set aside to improve specific technologies, such as hydrogen storage systems, military armor and batteries.

The U.S. led in terms of government funding, corporate spending and venture capital investment ($6.4 billion in all) as well as patent issuances, with 2,378. China fared poorly in terms of obtaining patents for its inventions but produced 13,049 nanotech-related publications, compared to 11,818 from U.S.-based researchers. One reason for this, according to Lux, is that the U.S. is not producing as many science and engineering graduates relative to its overall population as other countries, including China.

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