The first generation of commercial nanotechnology
companies -- those whose business is based on manufactured
nanoparticles -- is already with us. Here is a quick
overview of the cast of characters that make up this
first wave of the nanotechnology industry in the UK.
Ivory tower tech-heads -- The university spin out company
state funding for academia decreases and universities
seek other ways of bringing in revenue, many
are either licensing or selling the results of
academic research to private companies, or are
setting up their own companies to cash
in on academic research discoveries.
UK examples of nano spin out companies
include Metal Nanopowders Ltd (University
of Birmingham); Nanoco (University of
Manchester); and Oxonica (University
is the UK's most prominent university spin
out nanotech company. It was set up to
find commercial applications for nanotech
research at Oxford University, and this
summer became the first pure-play UK nanotech
company to be floated on the stock exchange.
Oxonica designs and markets its products,
leaving manufacture to be done under license by other companies. Its main
products are fuel additives (Envirox as used by Stagecoach buses) and sunscreen
ingredients (as used by Boots).
2. Bomb making boffins -- The military industrial
It's not just academic research in universities that is having to stand on
its own two feet. So too does military research.
QinetiQ Nanomaterials is a wholly owned subsidiary of QinetiQ, the partly privatised
wing of the Ministry of Defence research agency (see QinetiQ article, page
3). By cashing in on the MoD's research infrastructure and buying in key
manufacturing technology, QinetiQ nanomaterials has established itself as
one of Europe's leading manufacturers of metal nanoparticles. Its products
can be used for anything from 'energetic materials' (aka explosives), to
ingredients for cosmetics, to fuel catalysts.
other venture into nanotechnology is its investment
in Australian nanotech company pSivida who are
working on medical applications of nano-stuctured ‘Biosilicon'
(a technology initially developed by QinetiQ).
3. Massively tiny and extremely huge -- The chemicals company
Another major player in UK Nano plc is the chemicals industry, which, given
its capacity for manufacturing bulk quantities of highly specialised chemicals,
has been able to step seamlessly into the new world of making nanomaterials.
Examples include UK based multinationals such as ICI/Uniqema, Elementis and
Johnson Matthey, as well as smaller players like Thomas Swann and Co.
Thomas Swan and Co.
County Durham speciality chemicals company Thomas Swann and Co (in conjunction
with Cambridge University), has set itself up as one of the only commercial
carbon nanotube manufacturer in the UK.
4. Hardly here at all yet -- The phantom nano company
Looking through a directory of the UK nano industry reveals some companies
which, on closer examination, consist of only a website, a single sales representative
and a mobile phone number, and turn out to be just the UK sales office of
foreign nano companies trying to make it big in the UK and Europe. Examples
include JR Nanotech and Guangzhou Heji Trade Co, Ltd.
JR Nanotech was set up to market nanomaterials products made in Korea and China.
The company's main business is in products with a silver nanoparticle anti-bacterial
finish, anything from nano socks to nano sanitary towels to nano tupperware.
5. Serving up the nano products -- The nano deliverery
Right at the other end of the spectrum of the nano industry from the design
and manufacture of nanoparticles are the companies which market and sell nanotech
based products. These companies will generally have little to do with nanotechnology
but are the sharp end of how the public will encounter nanotechnology. In the
UK these companies range from cosmetics companies including Boots, Green People
and The Body Shop, to clothing companies like GAP, Regatta, Levis and Marks
and Spencer, to glass company Pilkington.
The Boots Soltan sunscreen range contains UV filters based on nanoparticle
titanium dioxide. The sunscreens are based on a product called Optisol designed
by Oxonica whose active ingredient is manufactured in Belgian company Umicore