Nanotechnology has become a growth industry—at least in
journalism. In 2004, no fewer than 12,343 stories were printed
about nanotechnology (that’s about 10 times the number of
companies actually doing nanotech), up from 7,631 in 2003.
And in the first two months of 2005 alone nanotechnology
has been referenced more than 2,600 times in the popular
Too often, these stories provide
little information helpful for the general reader in understanding
nanotechnology or, worse yet, confuse reality and fiction
to the point that readers can’t tell the difference between
Michael Crichton’s evil, utterly fictional “nano-swarms”
in Prey and the very real and harmless nanoparticles we
breathe every day.
In order to provide journalists a
baseline for reporting about nanotechnology and the companies
pursuing it, The Nanotech Company offers the following primer:
7 things every reporter should know before writing a nanotech
story and 7 questions to ask every “nanotech” company.
7 THINGS EVERY REPORTER SHOULD KNOW BEFORE WRITING
A NANOTECHNOLOGY STORY
1. Just because it’s tiny doesn’t mean it’s nano. While
the prefix “nano” in nanotechnology refers to one-billionth
of a meter (about the length of 10 hydrogen atoms lined
up), not everything that small qualifies as nanotechnology.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative says that to qualify
as “nanotechnology” research or a product must involve all
three of the following:
• Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular
or macromolecular levels, in the length scale of approximately
1 - 100 nanometer range;
• Creating and using structures, devices and systems that
have novel properties and functions because of their small
and/or intermediate size;
• Ability to control or manipulate on the atomic scale.
A key component here is the phrase “devices and systems
that have novel properties and functions because of their
small and/or intermediate size.” The “novel properties and
functions” are derived from “quantum physics” effects that
sometimes occur at the nanoscale, that are very different
from the physical forces and properties we experience in
our daily lives, and they are what make nanotechnology different
from other really small stuff like proteins and other molecules.
2. Nanoscience is not nanotechnology.
Nanoscience is the study of phenomena and manipulation of
materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales,
where properties differ significantly from those at a larger
scale. Nanotechnologies are the design, characterization,
production and application of structures, devices and systems
by controlling shape and size at nanometer scale.
The distinction is particularly important
from a business perspective because, of the thousands of
nanoscience research projects underway at academic institutions,
only a very small percentage of these will evolve into technologies
that exit the lab and make it to the technology phase, much
less to a product, and fewer still to a company startup
phase. An even smaller percentage of startups will have
their technology adopted by an industry. Many different
technologies may solve the same problem, but only one or
two will rise to the top of the heap.
3. Nanotechnology and MEMS are not
the same. MEMS, or micro-electro-mechanical systems (the
tiny motors, machines and tools you see occasionally pictured
in Scientific American or elsewhere), are often confused
with nanotech, even though MEMS devices, while still microscopically
small, are thousands of times larger than nano devices.
MEMS devices may incorporate nanotechnology, but they are
themselves not nano.
4. There are no such things as “nanobots”.
It seems that nearly every general audience story about
nanotechnology begins with some reference to “nanobots coursing
through our bloodstreams” or apocalyptic “grey goo” scenarios,
a tendency that blurs the distinctions between serious science
and science fiction and confuses readers. Nanobots and grey
goo and self-replicating nano-machines and unicorns and
leprechauns are figments of the imagination, period.
5. Just because it sounds complex
doesn’t mean it is. Some companies and researchers will
make their technology seem overly complex in order to elicit
a greater “gee whiz” factor. In most cases, nanotechnology
is some mixture or intersection of chemistry, physics, materials
science, electrical engineering, and biology. Ask an unbiased
academic scientist (such as one of our experts at The Nanotech
Company) to break it down for you. Real nanoscience and
technology have sound, reliable foundations that conform
to known physical laws.
6. Nano is responsible technology.
A significant amount of attention has been paid to the potential
health and environmental risks posed by nanotechnology,
with the underlying implication that both academic and corporate
research ignores safety and ethics in pursuit of profit.
The truth is that tens of thousands of scientists and engineers,
and billions of dollars are being dedicated to understanding
and mitigating any potential hazards created by nanotechnologies.
Is this to say that nanotech is completely benign? Of course
not. Every technology has its risks, but the nanotechnology
industry is aware of the potential risks of nanotech and
works diligently to address them.
We encounter potential hazards every
day— kitchen knives, cleaning chemicals, gasoline, germy
children—but develop products and strategies to lessen any
danger (after all, I keep bleach in the house, but that
doesn’t mean I drink it).
7. Nanotechnology means business.
While the “gee whiz” of nanotech garners the most attention
(Cures for cancer! Space elevators!), the reality is that
nanotechnology means business, creating new jobs, economic
growth, and potential wealth. If history is a guide, some
nanotech companies will succeed, but most will fail.
Nonetheless, nanotechnology is already
making its mark in the industrial landscape. Nanotechnology
is used in a wide array of electronics, magnetics and optoelectronics,
biomedical devices and pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, energy,
catalysts and materials, which already represent billions
of dollars in revenue. Areas producing the greatest revenue
include such mundane products as sports equipment, chemical-mechanical
polishers, magnetic recording tapes, sunscreens, automotive
catalyst supports, biolabeling, electroconductive coatings,
protective coatings and optical fibers.
Globally, more than $8 billion year
is being spent each year on nanotechnology research and
development by federal, state and local governments, Fortune
500 companies, and universities. With nary a nanobot in
7 THINGS EVERY REPORTER SHOULD ASK EVERY “NANOTECHNOLOGY”
The current attention to nanotechnology has spawned a growing
number of companies claiming nanotech as a core competency.
Some are “nano” in name only. These companies have no particular
technology or application that utilizes nanotechnology,
but use “nano” in their name in order to attract attention
and investment—beware of these pretenders.
In order to separate the pretenders
from the contenders, we suggest reporters ask a few basic
questions to ascertain whether a company is indeed nano:
1. Where’s the nano? Show me the
nano. Challenge any company claiming to be a nano company
to explain how its technology or product is derived from
nanotechnology, keeping in mind that, just because something
is tiny (even nanoscale) doesn’t necessarily make it nanotech.
If unsure, ask an unbiased expert.
2. Is nanotechnology required for
your technology to work? Could microtechnology be substituted
instead? Sometimes going nano makes a product more complicated,
complex or expensive than it needs to be. For end users,
what matters most are not whether something is “nano” or
“micro” but whether it provides a real solution to an actual
problem. Size or “type” of technology hardly ever matters,
and “solutions in search of a problem” aren’t the basis
of ongoing businesses, however, they’re sometimes the basis
of stock promotion.
3. Does your technology provide an
answer to a specific industrial dilemma, or is it a solution
in search of a problem? Too often, researchers launch companies
with technologies that either do not fulfill a particular
industrial need or are too complex or expensive to be viable.
If a company has not thought out what specific industrial
problem its technology solves, it’s probably little more
than a science project. Ask whether a company has actually
talked to potential end users in order to understand what
4. Who are your competitors/competing
technologies? Why is your technology a better solution?
Everyone has competitors. If a company says they don’t,
they need a reality check. And remember, a better mousetrap
is not necessarily a winner.
5. Are other researchers/companies
following your lead or are you a lone ranger? If no one
else is interested in a particular line of research or development,
take a second look. There might be an underlying problem
with the technology or it might simply be out of line with
industrial needs. Hot markets attract hot competition.
6. What’s your market strategy? If
a company says they plan to surpass GE in market share in
medical imaging within five years (for example), take it
with a BIG grain of salt – no, take it with a pound of salt.
The incumbent market leaders and end users (the GEs, Boeings,
Intels, BASFs and other industrial giants) will continue
to control the majority of consumer and business markets,
and their product roadmaps are unlikely to be interrupted
in the short term by emerging technologies, regardless of
how revolutionary they are. The strategy and marketing plan
have to be grounded in the real world and significant financial
and personnel resources have to be devoted to marketing
and sales to win in the marketplace.
7. Have you been approached by other
(especially larger) companies about licensing/acquiring
your technology? A good measure of whether a technology
has legs is whether it is in demand from potential licensees
or acquirers. This suggests a potential market for the technology,
as well as potential revenue streams for the company.
Like any emerging industrial technology, nanotech is an
uneven amalgamation of science, finance, marketing, personalities
and luck. At The Nanotech Company, our expert team of scientists,
financiers and business people are available to help you
understand the scientific, investment and business intricacies
of this exciting technology. For more information and insight,
The company publishes the dynamic, new book on nanotech
investing (the first ever on the subject) Nanotech Fortunes:
Make Yours in the Boom; Winning Strategies available for
$27.95 plus $4 S&H by check to The Nanotech Company,
LLC, 3525 Del Mar Heights, #345 San Diego, CA 92130. Credit
card charges will be available April 22nd on www.nanotechnology.com.
2005 Japan Prize winner and eminent bionanoscientist, Erkki
Ruoslahti, MD, PhD, said “Darrell’s general business acumen
is beyond question, but I have also come to admire his impressive
understanding of scientific and technical underpinnings
The Nanotech Company, LLC is the leading, independent advisory
firm that assists emerging nanotech companies achieve their
corporate development goals by accessing its significant
scientific, corporate development, and financial advisory
Managing Director, Darrell Brookstein, a 30 year financial
executive, and Erkki Ruoslahti, MD, PhD, a Distinguished
Professor and bionanoscientist, have assembled an eminent
team of award winning nanoscientists, professional services
specialists, and corporate/financial development experts
to enhance and accelerate the intelligent growth of private
and public nanotech companies.
The Nanotech Company, LLC
3525 Del Mar Heights Road #345
San Diego, CA 92130
Attn: Darrell Brookstein