Category Archives: business

SEMANTICS, a major graphene project based in Ireland

A Jan. 28, 2015 news item on Nanowerk profiles SEMANTICS, a major graphene project based in Ireland (Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is the strongest, most impermeable and conductive material known to man. Graphene sheets are just one atom thick, but 200 times stronger than steel. The European Union is investing heavily in the exploitation of graphene’s unique properties through a number of research initiatives such as the SEMANTICS project running at Trinity College Dublin.

A Dec. 16, 2014 European Commission press release, which originated the news item, provides an overview of the graphene enterprise in Europe,

It is no surprise that graphene, a substance with better electrical and thermal conductivity, mechanical strength and optical purity than any other, is being heralded as the ‘wonder material’ of the 21stcentury, as plastics were in the 20thcentury.

Graphene could be used to create ultra-fast electronic transistors, foldable computer displays and light-emitting diodes. It could increase and improve the efficiency of batteries and solar cells, help strengthen aircraft wings and even revolutionise tissue engineering and drug delivery in the health sector.

It is this huge potential which has convinced the European Commission to commit €1 billion to the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Graphene Flagship project, the largest-ever research initiative funded in the history of the EU. It has a guaranteed €54 million in funding for the first two years with much more expected over the next decade.

Sustained funding for the full duration of the Graphene Flagship project comes from the EU’s Research Framework Programmes, principally from Horizon 2020 (2014-2020).

The aim of the Graphene Flagship project, likened in scale to NASA’s mission to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, or the Human Genome project in the 1990s, is to take graphene and related two-dimensional materials such as silicene (a single layer of silicon atoms) from a state of raw potential to a point where they can revolutionise multiple industries and create economic growth and new jobs in Europe.

The research effort will cover the entire value chain, from materials production to components and system integration. It will help to develop the strong position Europe already has in the field and provide an opportunity for European initiatives to lead in global efforts to fully exploit graphene’s miraculous properties.

Under the EU plan, 126 academics and industry groups from 17 countries will work on 15 individual but connected projects.

The press release then goes on to describe a new project, SEMANTICS,

… this is not the only support being provided by the EU for research into the phenomenal potential of graphene. The SEMANTICS research project, led by Professor Jonathan Coleman at Trinity College Dublin, is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and has already achieved some promising results.

The ERC does not assign funding to particular challenges or objectives, but selects the best scientists with the best ideas on the sole criterion of excellence. By providing complementary types of funding, both to individual scientists to work on their own ideas, and to large-scale consortia to coordinate top-down programmes, the EU is helping to progress towards a better knowledge and exploitation of graphene.

“It is no overestimation to state that graphene is one of the most exciting materials of our lifetime,” Prof. Coleman says. “It has the potential to provide answers to the questions that have so far eluded us. Technology, energy and aviation companies worldwide are racing to discover the full potential of graphene. Our research will be an important element in helping to realise that potential.”

With the help of European Research Council (ERC) Starting and Proof of Concept Grants, Prof. Coleman and his team are researching methods for obtaining single-atom layers of graphene and other layered compounds through exfoliation (peeling off) from the multilayers, followed by deposition on a range of surfaces to prepare films displaying specific behaviour.

“We’re working towards making graphene and other single-atom layers available on an economically viable industrial scale, and making it cheaply,” Prof. Coleman continues.

“At CRANN [Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices at Trinity College Dublin], we are developing nanosheets of graphene and other single-atom materials which can be made in very large quantities,” he adds. “When you put these sheets in plastic, for example, you make the plastic stronger. Not only that – you can massively increase its electrical properties, you can improve its thermal properties and you can make it less permeable to gases. The applications for industry could be endless.”

Prof. Coleman admits that scientists are regularly taken aback by the potential of graphene. “We are continually amazed at what graphene and other single-atom layers can do,” he reveals. “Recently it has been discovered that, when added to glue, graphene can make it more adhesive. Who would have thought that? It’s becoming clear that graphene just makes things a whole lot better,” he concludes.

So far, the project has developed a practical method for producing two-dimensional nanosheets in large quantities. Crucially, these nanosheets are already being used for a range of applications, including the production of reinforced plastics and metals, building super-capacitors and batteries which store energy, making cheap light detectors, and enabling ultra-sensitive position and motion sensors. As the number of application grows, increased demand for these materials is anticipated. In response, the SEMANTICS team has scaled up the production process and is now producing 2D nanosheets at a rate more than 1000 times faster than was possible just a year ago.

I believe that new graphene production process is the ‘blender’ technique featured here in an April 23, 2014 post. There’s also a profile of the ‘blender’ project  in a Dec. 10, 2014 article by Ben Deighton for the European Commission’s Horizon magazine (Horizon 2020 is the European Union’s framework science funding programme). Deighton’s article hosts a video of Jonathan Coleman speaking about nanotechnology, blenders, and more on Dec. 1, 2014 at TEDxBrussels.

A newish Tekmira results from a merger with OnCore Biopharma

A Jan. 12, 2015 news item on Azonano announces a new business entity, a combined Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (located in North Vancouver, Canada) and OnCore Biopharma (located in Pennsylvania, US),

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation, a leading developer of RNA interference (RNAi) therapeutics, and OnCore Biopharma, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company dedicated to discovering, developing and commercializing an all-oral cure for patients suffering from chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, announced today that they have agreed to merge to create a new leading global HBV company focused on developing a curative regimen for hepatitis B patients by combining multiple therapeutic approaches.

A Jan. 11, 2015 Tekmira news release, which originated the news item, provides details including how this merger will affect the work on the Tekmira ebola treatment,

This transaction is expected to bring together the companies’ broad expertise in antiviral drug development, Tekmira’s Phase 1-ready HBV RNAi therapeutic and OnCore’s multiple HBV programs, to build a robust portfolio of compounds aimed at eradicating HBV. The combined company’s most advanced products are expected to be TKM-HBV, an RNAi therapeutic designed to eliminate HBV surface antigen (HBsAg) expression, a key component of host immune suppression, which is on track to begin human clinical trials in the first quarter of 2015; and OCB-030, a second-generation cyclophilin inhibitor focused on the suppression of viral replication, as well as stimulation and reactivation of the body’s immune response, which is anticipated to enter human clinical trials in the second half of 2015. The combined company anticipates progressing additional programs toward the clinic to achieve the goal of expeditiously evaluating combination regimens.

The combined pipeline is expected to target the three pillars necessary to develop a curative regimen for HBV, including assets focused on suppressing HBV replication, reactivating and stimulating the host immune response directed at HBV and eliminating covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA). The parties believe that, together, these three pillars are the foundation for achieving a curative regimen.

Dr. Mark J. Murray, Chief Executive Officer of Tekmira, said, “We believe that the merger between Tekmira and OnCore has the potential to transform the HBV treatment landscape by bringing together the technologies and science needed to eradicate the virus and develop a cure for this debilitating and deadly disease. Our new company has the potential to advance multiple, highly active, complementary agents into the clinic in rapid succession, and create an HBV therapeutics powerhouse, thereby potentially offering significant benefits to the global medical community working to improve the lives of HBV patients. Importantly, we also believe this transaction has the potential to create significant value for our shareholders.”

Patrick Higgins, Chief Executive Officer of OnCore, said, “Tekmira and OnCore share a vision that effective combination regimens will ultimately cure HBV, a goal now being realized for hepatitis C virus. This merger is expected to bring together the promise of TKM-HBV with our existing HBV portfolio and accelerate our timeline for combination clinical trials. It is expected to deliver both near-term catalysts and long-term value creation. We believe that the ability to rapidly and sequentially combine novel HBV therapeutics is extremely valuable. We intend to utilize our collective expertise in liver disease and a focused development program, as we did at Pharmasset, to expeditiously and efficiently meet our shared goals.”

An Industry-Leading, Multi-Functional HBV Portfolio

Through the combined portfolio, OnCore and Tekmira intend to advance a robust pipeline of assets that uniquely targets the three pillars for delivering a curative regimen for HBV, including suppressing HBV replication, reactivating and stimulating the host immune response directed at HBV and eliminating cccDNA, the stable source of HBV viral genomic material. Post-closing, the combined company’s HBV portfolio is expected to include  product assets, which can be viewed in a chart by clicking on the following  link: http://media.globenewswire.com/cache/14025/file/31117.pdf

“We intend to take a focused, iterative approach to identifying the most effective combination regimens, while applying what we learn at each stage to optimize future compounds and combinations,” said Dr. Michael Sofia, the combined company’s Chief Scientific Officer and an inventor of sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) for the treatment of hepatitis C. “We believe that the ability to combine multiple unique programs housed in the same company is a significant competitive advantage, and should provide considerable efficiency in terms of speed and ease of decision-making. Combining the OnCore and Tekmira HBV portfolios underpins our vision to accelerate the delivery of a curative HBV regimen.”

Non-HBV Programs Continuing to Move Forward

Tekmira is a global leader in the RNAi field, and has created a diverse pipeline of products in development to treat serious human diseases, such as cancer and viral infections, including Ebola. The company has also licensed its leading lipid nanoparticle (LNP) delivery technology to partners around the world.

The management teams and Boards of Directors of Tekmira and OnCore believe that there is significant value in Tekmira’s non-HBV assets and collaborations. TKM-PLK1 is currently in Phase 2 in multiple indications and TKM-Ebola is expected to enter Phase 2 in West Africa in early 2015. Tekmira also maintains an active RNAi research and development effort. The combined management team and Board of Directors plans to continue to move forward with these programs with the goal of maximizing their value.

The news release goes on to describe the deal,

Under the terms of the agreement, the transaction will be carried out by way of a merger pursuant to which OnCore will merge with a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tekmira and thereby become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tekmira. Upon closing of the transaction the stockholders of OnCore will hold approximately fifty percent (50%) of the total number of outstanding shares of capital stock of Tekmira, calculated on a fully-diluted and as-converted basis using the treasury stock method. The terms and conditions of the transaction are more fully set forth in the Merger Agreement. The implied market value of the combined company, based on the closing price of Tekmira common shares on the NASDAQ Global Market on January 9, 2015, is approximately USD$750 million.

The merger is subject to approval of a majority of the shareholders of Tekmira present, in person or by proxy, at a special meeting of Tekmira shareholders. Completion of the transaction is also subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory approvals.  The transaction is expected to close in the first half of 2015, shortly after completion of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) review process and receipt of Tekmira shareholder approval. The Tekmira Board of Directors unanimously approved and recommends that Tekmira shareholders vote FOR the proposed transaction at a special meeting of shareholders.

Details regarding these and other terms of the transaction are set out in the Merger Agreement, which will be filed by Tekmira on the SEC website at www.sec.gov and on the Canadian securities administrator’s website at www.sedar.com.

The combined company plans to retain top executives and board members from Tekmira and OnCore. The new company’s management team will include Mark J. Murray, PhD, Chief Executive Officer; Patrick T. Higgins, President and Chief Operating Officer; Bruce Cousins, Chief Financial Officer; Michael J. Sofia, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer; Mark Kowalski, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer; Bryce Roberts, Chief Legal Officer; Michael J. McElhaugh, Chief Business Officer; and Michael J. Abrams, PhD, Chief Discovery Officer. William T. Symonds, PharmD, who led the clinical development of sofosbuvir for the treatment of HCV infection at Pharmasset and later Gilead Sciences, Inc., will be Chief Development Officer and lead the clinical development of the portfolio.

Vivek Ramaswamy will serve as Chairman of the combined company; Dr. Daniel Kisner MD will serve as its Vice-Chairman. The combined company will be headquartered in Vancouver, BC.

I don’t understand how a company, OnCore, which is becoming a subsidiary qualifies as an equal partner in a merger but I gather this is business speak. In any event, the truly curious can find the webcast for a conference call about the deal held on Jan. 12, 2015 at 5 am PT (8 am ET)  along with an accompanying presentation here. The webcast will be available only from January 12, 2015 at 9:00 am PT  / 12 noon ET to January 17, 2015 at 9:00 am PT  / 12 noon ET and, for access, you must register on the site.

I have written previously about Tekmira, in a Nov. 19, 2014 post regarding another of its business deals and in a Sept. 23, 2014 post about its ebola treatment.

Commercialization webinar series for nanotechnology businesses

Starting Jan. 15, 2015, there will be a series of nanotechnology commercialization webinars for small and medium enterprises offered by agencies associated with the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). From a Jan. 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (there is an alphabet soup’s worth of agencies hosting this series),

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), on behalf of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the Committee on Technology, National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), will hold a series of webinars focusing on the experiences, successes, and challenges for small- and medium-sized businesses working in nanotechnology and on issues of interest to the business community.

The first webinar is “Roadblocks to Success in Nanotechnology Commercialization – What Keeps the Small and Medium Enterprise Community Up at Night?”

More details can be found on the NNCO Small- and Medium-sized Enterprise Webinar Series page for the first in the series,

When: The first webinar will be held Thursday, January 15, 2015, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. EST.

This webinar will be a round-table discussion with small and medium-sized businesses involved in nanotechnology commercialization focused on understanding common problems that they face and identifying those problems that the NNCO and NSET can assist in overcoming.

Who:

  • Craig Bandes, Pixelligent LLC
  • Doyle Edwards, Brewer Science Inc.
  • Scott Rickert, PEN Inc.

How: Questions of interest to the small- and medium-sized business community may be submitted to [email protected] beginning one week prior to the event through the close of the webinar. During the question-and-answer segment of the webinars, submitted questions will be considered in the order received and may be posted on the NNI Web site (www.nano.gov). A moderator will identify relevant questions and pose them to the panelists. Due to time constraints, not all questions may be addressed during the webinar. The moderator reserves the right to group similar questions and to skip questions, as appropriate.

Registration: Click here to register for this free, online event. Registration for the webinar is required and is on a first-come, first-served basis and will be capped at 200 participants.

Good luck with registration! (I was not able to click through to the page this morning, Jan. 7, 2015 at approximately 10:25 am PDT. They may have a problem with their server or they’re being overrun with requests.)

ETA Jan. 7, 2015 1040 hours PDT: Marlowe Newman, the media contact for this series, very kindly sent me a link to the registration page (I tried and it works),

https://events-na12.adobeconnect.com/content/connect/c1/1305935587/en/events/event/shared/default_template/event_registration.html?sco-id=1309829163&_charset_=utf-8

I also tried the previous link to the registration and it seems be working now.

Insurance companies, the future, and perceptions about nanotechnology risks

Michael Berger has written a Dec. 15, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight about a study examining perceptions of nanotechnology risks amongst members of the insurance industry,

Insurance companies are major stakeholders capable of contributing to the safer and more sustainable development of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials. This is owed to the fact that the insurance industry is one of the bearers of potential losses that can arise from the production and use of nanomaterials and nanotechnology applications.

Researchers at the University of Limerick in Ireland have examined how the insurance market perception of nanotechnology can influence the sustainability of technological advances and insurers’ concern for nanotechnology risks. They claim that, despite its role in sustaining technology development in modern society, insurers’ perception on nanomaterials has been largely overlooked by researchers and regulators alike.

I encourage you to read Berger’s piece in its entirety as it includes nuggets such as this,

… Over 64 per cent of surveyed insurers said they were vaguely familiar with nanotechnology and nanomaterial terms, and over 25 per cent said they had a moderate working knowledge and were able to define the terms. The interview data, however, suggests that this knowledge is at a basic level and there is a need for more information in order to allow this group to differentiate between distinct nanomaterial risks.

For those of you who would like to read the researchers’ paper in its entirety, you can find it in the Geneva Association Newsletter: Risk Management, No. 54, June 2014 where you will find a very interesting set of prognostications in Walter R. Stahel’s editorial,

In the editorial of the Risk Management newsletter of May 2013, I was looking back at 25 years of Risk Management Research of The Geneva Association. Today, this editorial and newsletter will look at some specific risks of the next 25 years.

If we first look back 25 years, to 1988, the PC had just been invented, Internet was still an internal network at the site of its invention the CERN [European Particle Physics Laboratory] in Geneva, cars were driven by people and mobile phones weighed five kilos and cost $5000, to give but a few technical examples. Dying forests, air pollution and retreating glaciers were the main environmental topics in the news, unemployment and sovereign debt were high on the agenda of politicians—some topics change, others remain.

Looking forward to 2039, the impacts of climate change will have amplified: invasive species—both plants such as ambrosia and animals such as the tiger mosquito—will have advanced further northward in Europe, while intensive agriculture in Scotland and Scandinavia will have become the norm—the European Union (EU) expects a 75 per cent increase in agricultural yields in these regions.

Other topics, such as bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics, represent a formidable challenge both as an opportunity for science and a risk to society. The European Commission estimates that today, 25,000 people die annually as a result of an infection with multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

The ageing population is another major opportunity and risk in the hands of policymakers, a topic which The Geneva Association started analysing more than 25 years ago. Yet the multiple benefits of continued activity by the elderly—such as lower health costs—are only starting to be recognised by politicians. And most companies, organisations and administrations are still extremely hesitant to keep able employees beyond the legal age of retirement.

No easy predictions can be made on the outcome of societal changes. Trends such as a shift from science-based policymaking to policy-based science, from evidence-based advocacy to advocacy-based evidence and from fault-based liability to need-based compensation could lead society onto down the wrong path, which may be irreversible.

The last paragraph from the excerpt is the most interesting to me as its puts some of the current machinations within Canadian public life into context within the European (and I suspect the international) political scene.

I do have a comment or two about the research but first here’s a citation for it,

Insurance Market Perception of Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials Risks By Lijana Baublyte, Martin Mullins, Finbarr Murphy and Syed A.M. Tofai. Geneva Association Newsletter: Risk Management, No. 54, June 2014.

No date is offered for when the research was conducted and there is no indication in the newsletter that it was published prior to its June 2014 publication.

As for the research itself, first, the respondents are self-assessing their knowledge about nanotechnology. That presents an interesting problem for researchers since self-assessment in any area is highly dependent on various attributes such as confidence, perceived intelligence, etc. For example, someone who’s more knowledgeable might self-assess as being less so than someone who has more confidence in themselves. As for this statistic from the report,

… Over 40 per cent of surveyed laypeople heard nothing at all about nanotechnologies and nanomaterials, 47.5 per cent said they were vaguely familiar with the technology and the remaining 11.7 per cent of respondents reported having moderate working knowledge.

Generally, people won’t tell you that they know about nanotechnologies and nanomaterials from a video game (Deux Ex) or a comic book (Iron Man’s Extremis story line) as they may not consider that to be knowledge or are embarrassed. In the case of the video game, the information about nanotechnology is based on reputable scientific research although it is somewhat massaged to fit into the game ethos. Nonetheless, information about emerging technologies is often conveyed through pop culture properties and/or advertising and most researchers don’t take that into account.

One more thing about layperson awareness, the researchers cite a meta-analysis conducted by Terre Satterfield, et. al. (full citation: Satterfield, T., Kandlikar, M., Beaudrie, C.E.H., Conti,J., and Herr Harthorn, B. [2009]. Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies. Nature Nanotechnology, 4[11]: 752–758),  which was published in 2009 (mentioned in my Sept. 22, 2009 post; scroll down about 35% of the way). As I recall, the meta-analysis fell a bit short as the researchers didn’t provide in-depth analysis of the research instruments (questionnaires) instead analysing only the results. That said, one can’t ‘reinvent the wheel’ every time one writes a paper or analyses data although I do wish just once I’d stumble across a study where researchers analysed the assumptions posed by the wording of the questions.

Commercializing cellulosic nanomaterials—a report from the US Dept. of Agriculture

Earlier this year in an April 10, 2014 post, I announced a then upcoming ‘nano commercialization’ workshop focused on cellulose nanomaterials in particular. While the report from the workshop, held in May, seems to have been published in August, news of its existence seems to have surfaced only now. From a Nov. 24, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

The U.S. Forest Service has released a report that details the pathway to commercializing affordable, renewable, and biodegradable cellulose nanomaterials from trees. Cellulosic nanomaterials are tiny, naturally occurring structural building blocks and hold great promise for many new and improved commercial products. Commercializing these materials also has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of American jobs while helping to restore our nation’s forests.

“This report is yet another important step toward commercializing a material that can aid in restoring our nations’ forests, provide jobs, and improve products that make the lives of Americans better every day,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “The Forest Service plans to generate greater public and market awareness of the benefits and uses for these naturally-occurring nanomaterials.”

The report, titled “Cellulose Nanomaterials – A Path towards Commercialization” (pdf), is a result of a workshop held earlier this year that brought together a wide range of experts from industry, academia, and government to ensure that commercialization efforts are driven by market and user materials needs.

A Nov. 24, 2014 US Dept. of Agriculture news release (Note: The US Forest Service is a division of the US Dept. of Agriculture), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the reasons for holding the workshop (Note: A link has been removed),

Cellulose nanomaterials have the potential to add value to an array of new and improved products across a range of industries, including electronics, construction, food, energy, health care, automotive, aerospace, and defense, according to Ted Wegner, assistant director at the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis.

“These environmentally friendly materials are extremely attractive because they have a unique combination of high strength, high stiffness, and light weight at what looks to be affordable prices,” Wegner explained. “Creating market pull for cellulose nanomaterials is critical to its commercialization.

The success of this commercialization effort is important to the U.S. Forest Service for another key reason: creating forests that are more resilient to disturbances through restorative actions. Removing excess biomass from overgrown forests and making it into higher value products like nanocellulose, is a win for the environment and for the economy.

“Finding high-value, high-volume uses for low-value materials is the key to successful forest restoration,” said Michael T. Rains, Director of the Northern Research Station and Forest Products Laboratory. “With about 400 million acres of America’s forests in need of some type of restorative action, finding markets for wood-based nanocellulose could have a huge impact on the economic viability of that work.”

The U.S. Forest Service, in collaboration with the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, organized the workshop. Participants included over 130 stakeholders from large volume industrial users, specialty users, Federal Government agencies, academia, non-government organizations, cellulose nanomaterials manufactures and industry consultants. The workshop generated market-driven input in three areas: Opportunities for Commercialization, Barriers to Commercialization, and Research and Development Roles and Priorities. Issues identified by participants included the need for more data on materials properties, performance, and environmental, health, and safety implications and the need for a more aggressive U.S. response to opportunities for advancing and developing cellulose nanomaterial.

“The workshop was a great opportunity to get research ideas directly from the people who want to use the material,” says World Nieh, the U.S. Forest Service’s national program lead for forest products. “Getting the market perspective and finding out what barriers they have encountered is invaluable guidance for moving research in a direction that will bring cellulose nanomaterials into the marketplace for commercial use.”

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, part U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.

The report titled, “Cellulose Nanomaterials – A Path towards Commercialization,” notes the situation from the US perspective (from p. 5 of the PDF report),

Despite great market potential, commercialization of cellulose nanomaterials in the United States is moving slowly. In contrast, foreign research, development, and deployment (RD&D) of cellulose nanomaterials has received significant governmental support through investments and coordination. [emphasis mine] U.S. RD&D activities have received much less government support and instead have relied on public-private partnerships and private sector investment. Without additional action to increase government investments and coordination, the United States could miss the window of opportunity for global leadership and end up being an “also ran” that has to import cellulose nanomaterials and products made by incorporating cellulose nanomaterials. If this happens, significant economic and social benefits would be lost. Accelerated commercialization for both the production and application of cellulose nanomaterials in a wide array of products is a critical national challenge.

I know the Canadian government has invested heavily in cellulose nanomaterials particularly in Québec (CelluForce, a DomTar and FPInnovations production facility for CNC [cellulose nanocrystals] also known as NCC [nanocrystalline cellulose]). There’s also some investment in Alberta (an unnamed CNC production facility) and Saskatchewan (Blue Goose Biorefineries). As for other countries and constituencies which come to mind and have reported on cellulose nanomaterial research, there’s Brazil, the European Union, Sweden, Finland, and Israel. I do not have details about government investments in those constituencies. I believe the report’s source supporting this contention is in Appendix E,  (from p. 41 of the PDF report),

Moon, Robert, and Colleen Walker. 2012. “Research into Cellulose
Nanomaterials Spans the Globe.” Paper360 7(3): 32–34. EBSCOhost. Accessed June 17, 2014 [behind a paywall]

Here’s a description of the barriers to commercialization (from p. 6 of the PDF report),

Clarifying the problems to be solved is a precursor to identifying solutions. The workshop identified critical barriers that are slowing commercialization. These barriers included lack of collaboration among potential producers and users; coordination of efforts among government, industry, and academia; lack of characterization and standards for cellulose nanomaterials; the need for greater market pull; and the need to overcome processing technical challenges related to cellulose nanomaterials dewatering and dispersion. While significant, these barriers are not insurmountable as long as the underlying technical challenges are properly addressed. With the right focus and sufficient resources, R&D should be able to overcome these key identified barriers.

There’s a list of potential applications (p. 7 of the PDF report).

Cellulose nanomaterials have demonstrated potential applications in a wide array of industrial sectors, including electronics, construction, packaging, food, energy, health care, automotive, and defense. Cellulose nanomaterials are projected to be less expensive than many other nanomaterials and, among other characteristics, tout an impressive strength-to-weight ratio (Erickson 2012, 26). The theoretical strength-to-weight performance offered by cellulose nanomaterials are unmatched by current technology (NIST 2008,
17). Furthermore, cellulose nanomaterials have proven to have major environmental benefits because they are recyclable, biodegradable, and produced from renewable resources.

I wonder if that strength-to-weight ratio comment is an indirect reference to carbon nanotubes which are usually the ‘strength darlings’ of the nanotech community.

More detail about potential applications is given on p. 9 of the PDF report,

All forms of cellulose nanomaterials are lightweight, strong, and stiff. CNCs possess photonic and piezoelectric properties, while CNFs can provide very stable hydrogels and aerogels. In addition, cellulose nanomaterials have low materials cost potential compared to other competing materials and, in their unmodified state, have so far shown few environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns (Ireland, Jones, Moon, Wegner, and Nieh 2014, 6). Currently, cellulose nanomaterials have demonstrated great potential for use in many areas, including aerogels, oil drilling additives, paints, coatings, adhesives, cement, food additives, lightweight packaging materials, paper, health care products, tissue scaffolding, lightweight vehicle armor, space technology, and automotive parts. Hence, cellulose nanomaterials have the potential to positively impact numerous industries. An important attribute of cellulose nanomaterials is that they are derived from renewable and broadly available resources (i.e., plant, animal, bacterial, and algal biomass). They are biodegradable and bring recyclability to products that contain them.

This particular passage should sound a familiar note for Canadians, from p. 11 of the PDF report,

However, commercialization of cellulose nanomaterials in the United States has been moving slowly. Since 2009, the USDA Forest Service has invested around $20 million in cellulose nanomaterials R&D, a small fraction of the $680 million spent on cellulose nanomaterials R&D by governments worldwide (Erickson 2014, 26). In order to remain globally competitive, accelerated research, development, and commercialization
of cellulose nanomaterials in the United States is imperative. Otherwise, the manufacturing of cellulose nanomaterials and cellulose nanomaterial-enabled products will be established by foreign producers, and the United States will be purchasing these materials from other countries. [emphasis mine] Establishing a large-scale production of cellulose nanomaterials in the United States is critical for creating new uses from wood—which is, in turn, vital to the future of forest management and the livelihood of landowners.

Here are some of the challenges and barriers identified in the workshop (pp. 19 – 21 of the PDF report),

Need for Characterization and Standards:
In order for a new material to be adopted for use, it must be well understood and end users must have confidence that the material is the same from one batch to the next. There is a need to better characterize cellulose nanomaterials with respect to their structure, surface properties, and performance. …

Production and Processing Methods:
Commercialization is inhibited by the lack of processing and production methods and know-how for ensuring uniform, reliable, and cost-effective production of cellulose nanomaterials, especially at large volumes. This is both a scale-up and a process control issue. …

Need for More Complete EHS Information:
Limited EHS information creates a significant barrier to commercialization because any uncertainty regarding material safety and the pending regulatory environment presents risk for early movers across all industries. …

Need for Market Pull and Cost/Benefit Performance:
As noted earlier, cellulose nanomaterials have potential applications in a wide range of areas, but there is no single need that is driving their commercial development. Stakeholders suggested several reasons, including lack of awareness of the material and its properties and a need for better market understanding. Commercialization will require market pull in order to incentivize manufacturers, yet there is no perceptible demand for cellulose nanomaterials at the moment. …

Challenge of Dewatering/Drying:
One of the most significant technical challenges identified is the dewatering of cellulose nanomaterials into a dry and usable form for incorporation into other materials. The lack of an energy-efficient, cost-effective drying process inhibits commercialization of cellulose nanomaterials, particularly for non-aqueous applications. Cellulose nanomaterials in low-concentration aqueous suspensions raise resource and transportation costs, which make them less viable commercially.

Technology Readiness:
Technology readiness is a major challenge in the adoption of cellulose nanomaterials. One obstacle in developing a market for cellulose nanomaterials is the lack of information on the basic properties of different types of cellulose nanomaterials, as noted in the characterization and standards discussion. …

The rest of the report concerns Research & Development (R&D) Roles and Priorities and the Path Forward. In total, this document is 44 pp. long and includes a number of appendices. Here’s where you can read “Cellulose Nanomaterials – A Path towards Commercialization.”

RNA interference: a Tekmira deal and a new technique births Solstice Biologics

I have two news items concerning ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi). The first item features Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation (a Canadian company located in the Vancouver area) and a licencing deal with Dicerna Pharmaceuticals (Massachusetts, US), according to a Nov. 18, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation a leading developer of RNA interference (RNAi) therapeutics, today announces a licensing and collaboration agreement with Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Tekmira has licensed its proprietary lipid nanoparticle (LNP) delivery technology for exclusive use in Dicerna’s primary hyperoxaluria type 1 (PH1) development program.

Under the agreement, Dicerna will pay Tekmira $2.5 million upfront and payments of $22 million in aggregate development milestones, plus a mid-single-digit royalty on future PH1 sales. This new partnership also includes a supply agreement with Tekmira providing clinical drug supply and regulatory support in the rapid advancement of the product candidate.

The agreement announced today follows the successful testing and demonstration of positive results combining Tekmira’s LNP technology with DCR-PH1 in pre-clinical animal models.

I don’t entirely understand what they mean by “pre-clinical animal models” as I’ve not noticed the term “pre-clinical” applied to animal testing before this. It’s possible they mean they’ve run tests on animals (in vivo) and are now proceeding to human clinical trials or it could mean they’ve run in silico (computer modeling) or in vitro (test tube/test slide) tests and are now proceeding to animal tests. If anyone should have some insights, please do share them with me in the comments section.

A Nov. 17, 2014 Tekmira news release, which originated the news item, describes the deal in more detail,

Dicerna will use Tekmira’s third generation LNP technology for delivery of DCR-PH1, Dicerna’s Dicer substrate RNA (DsiRNA) molecule, for the treatment of PH1, a rare, inherited liver disorder that often results in kidney failure and for which there are no approved therapies.

“This new agreement validates our leadership position in RNAi delivery with LNP technology, and it underscores the significant value we can bring to partners who leverage our technology. Our LNP technology is enabling the most advanced applications of RNAi therapeutics in the clinic, and it continues to do so. We are excited to be working with Dicerna to be able to advance a needed therapeutic for the treatment of PH1,” said Dr. Mark J. Murray, Tekmira’s President and CEO.

“As a core pillar of our business strategy, we continue to engage in partnerships where our technology improves the risk profile and accelerates the development programs of our collaborators and provides meaningful non-dilutive financing to TKMR,” added Dr. Murray.

“Dicerna is focused on realizing the full clinical potential of our proprietary pipeline of highly targeted RNAi therapies by applying proven technologies,” said Douglas Fambrough, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of Dicerna. “By drawing on Tekmira’s extensive and deep experience with lipid nanoparticle delivery to the liver, the agreement will streamline the development path for DCR-PH1. We look forward to initiating Phase 1 trials of DCR-PH1 in 2015, aiming to fill a high unmet medical need for patients with PH1.”

The news release also provides a high level description of the various technologies being researched and brought to market and a bit more information about the liver disorder being addressed by this research,

About RNAi

RNAi therapeutics have the potential to treat a number of human diseases by “silencing” disease-causing genes. The discoverers of RNAi, a gene silencing mechanism used by all cells, were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. RNAi trigger molecules often require delivery technology to be effective as therapeutics.

AboutTekmira’s LNP Technology

Tekmira believes its LNP technology represents the most widely adopted delivery technology for the systemic delivery of RNAi triggers. Tekmira’s LNP platform is being utilized in multiple clinical trials by Tekmira and its partners. Tekmira’s LNP technology (formerly referred to as stable nucleic acid-lipid particles, or SNALP) encapsulates RNAi triggers with high efficiency in uniform lipid nanoparticles that are effective in delivering these therapeutic compounds to disease sites. Tekmira’s LNP formulations are manufactured by a proprietary method which is robust, scalable and highly reproducible, and LNP-based products have been reviewed by multiple regulatory agencies for use in clinical trials. LNP formulations comprise several lipid components that can be adjusted to suit the specific application.

About Primary Hyperoxaluria Type 1 ( PH1)

PH1 is a rare, inherited liver disorder that often results in severe damage to the kidneys. The disease can be fatal unless the patient undergoes a liver-kidney transplant, a major surgical procedure that is often difficult to perform due to the lack of donors and the threat of organ rejection. In the event of a successful transplant, the patient must live the rest of his or her life on immunosuppressant drugs, which have substantial associated risks. Currently, there are no FDA approved treatments for PH1.

PH1 is characterized by a genetic deficiency of the liver enzyme alanine:glyoxalate-aminotransferase (AGT), which is encoded by the AGXT gene. AGT deficiency induces overproduction of oxalate by the liver, resulting in the formation of crystals of calcium oxalate in the kidneys. Oxalate crystal formation often leads to chronic and painful cases of kidney stones and subsequent fibrosis (scarring), which is known as nephrocalcinosis. Many patients progress to end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and require dialysis or transplant. Aside from having to endure frequent dialysis, PH1 patients with ESRD may experience a build-up of oxalate in the bone, skin, heart and retina, with concomitant debilitating complications. While the true prevalence of primary hyperoxaluria is unknown, it is estimated to be one to three cases per one million people.1 Fifty percent of patients with PH1 reach ESRD by their mid-30s.2

About DCR-PH1

Dicerna is developing DCR-PH1, which is in preclinical development, for the treatment of PH1. DCR-PH1 is engineered to address the pathology of PH1 by targeting and destroying the messenger RNA (mRNA) produced by HAO1, a gene implicated in the pathogenesis of PH1. HAO1 encodes glycolate oxidase, a protein involved in producing oxalate. By reducing oxalate production, this approach is designed to prevent the complications of PH1. In preclinical studies, DCR-PH1 has been shown to induce potent and long-term inhibition of HAO1 and to significantly reduce levels of urinary oxalate, while demonstrating long-term efficacy and tolerability in animal models of PH1.

About Dicerna’s Dicer Substrate Technology

Dicerna’s proprietary RNAi molecules are known as Dicer substrates, or DsiRNAs, so called because they are processed by the Dicer enzyme, which is the initiation point for RNAi in the human cell cytoplasm. Dicerna’s discovery approach is believed to maximize RNAi potency because the DsiRNAs are structured to be ideal for processing by Dicer. Dicer processing enables the preferential use of the correct RNA strand of the DsiRNA, which may increase the efficacy of the RNAi mechanism, as well as the potency of the DsiRNA molecules relative to other molecules used to induce RNAi.

You can find more information about Tekmira here and about Dicerna here. I mentioned Tekmira previously in a Sept. 28, 2014 post about Ebola and treatments.

Further south at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), researcher and founder of Solstice Biologics, Dr Steven Dowdy has developed and patented a new technique for delivering RNAi drugs into cells according to a Nov. 18, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Small pieces of synthetic RNA trigger a RNA interference (RNAi) response that holds great therapeutic potential to treat a number of diseases, especially cancer and pandemic viruses. The problem is delivery — it is extremely difficult to get RNAi drugs inside the cells in which they are needed. To overcome this hurdle, researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have developed a way to chemically disguise RNAi drugs so that they are able to enter cells. Once inside, cellular machinery converts these disguised drug precursors — called siRNNs — into active RNAi drugs. …

A Nov. 17, 2014 UCSD news release (also on EurekAlert) by Heather Buschman, which originated the news item, describes the issues with delivering RNAi drugs to cells and the new technique,

“Many current approaches use nanoparticles to deliver RNAi drugs into cells,” said Steven F. Dowdy, PhD, professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the study’s principal investigator. “While nanotechnology protects the RNAi drug, from a molecular perspective nanoparticles are huge, some 5,000 times larger than the RNAi drug itself. Think of delivering a package into your house by having an 18-wheeler truck drive it through your living room wall — that’s nanoparticles carrying standard RNAi drugs. Now think of a package being slipped through the mail slot — that’s siRNNs.”

The beauty of RNAi is that it selectively blocks production of target proteins in a cell, a finding that garnered a Nobel Prize in 2006. While this is a normal process that all cells use, researchers have taken advantage of RNAi to inhibit specific proteins that cause disease when overproduced or mutated, such as in cancer. First, researchers generate RNAi drugs with a sequence that corresponds to the gene blueprint for the disease protein and then delivers them into cells. Once inside the cell, the RNAi drug is loaded into an enzyme that specifically slices the messenger RNA encoding the target protein in half. This way, no protein is produced.

As cancer and viral genes mutate, RNAi drugs can be easily evolved to target them. This allows RNAi therapy to keep pace with the genetics of the disease — something that no other type of therapy can do. Unfortunately, due to their size and negatively charged chemical groups (phosphates) on their backbone, RNAi drugs are repelled by the cellular membrane and cannot be delivered into cells without a special delivery agent.

It took Dowdy and his team, including Bryan Meade, PhD, Khirud Gogoi, PhD, and Alexander S. Hamil, eight years to find a way to mask RNAi’s negative phosphates in such a way that gets them into cells, but is still capable of inducing an RNAi response once inside.

In the end, the team added a chemical tag called a phosphotriester group. The phosphotriester neutralizes and protects the RNA backbone — converting the ribonucleic acid (RNA) to ribonucleic neutral (RNN), and thus giving the name siRNN. The neutral (uncharged) nature of siRNNs allows them to pass into the cell much more efficiently. Once inside the cell, enzymes cleave off the neutral phosphotriester group to expose a charged RNAi drug that shuts down production of the target disease protein. siRNNs represent a transformational next-generation RNAi drug.

“siRNNs are precursor drugs, or prodrugs, with no activity. It’s like having a tool still in the box, it won’t work until you take it out,” Dowdy said. “Only when the packaging — the phosphotriester groups — is removed inside the cells do you have an active tool or RNAi drug.”

The findings held up in a mouse model, too. There, Dowdy’s team found that siRNNs were significantly more effective at blocking target protein production than typical RNAi drugs — demonstrating that once siRNNs get inside a cell they can do a better job.

“There remains a lot of work ahead to get this into the clinics. But, in theory, the therapeutic potential of siRNNs is endless,” Dowdy said. “Particularly for cancer, viral infections and genetic diseases.”

The siRNN technology forms the basis for Solstice Biologics, a biotech company in La Jolla, Calif. that is now taking the technique to the next level. Dowdy is a co-founder of Solstice Biologics and serves as a Board Director.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Efficient delivery of RNAi prodrugs containing reversible charge-neutralizing phosphotriester backbone modifications by Bryan R Meade, Khirud Gogoi, Alexander S Hamil, Caroline Palm-Apergi, Arjen van den Berg, Jonathan C Hagopian, Aaron D Springer, Akiko Eguchi, Apollo D Kacsinta, Connor F Dowdy, Asaf Presente, Peter Lönn, Manuel Kaulich, Naohisa Yoshioka, Edwige Gros, Xian-Shu Cui, & Steven F Dowdy. Nature Biotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nbt.3078 Published online 17 November 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

I have not been able to locate a website for Solstice Biologics but did find a rather curious item about Dr. Dowdy and a shooting incident last year. From a Sept. 18, 2013 news article by Kat Robinson for thewire.sheknows.com,

A wealthy San Diego community is shaken after a man opens fire on his former neighborhood early Wednesday morning. Police say Hans Petersen, a 48-year-old man, is the prime suspect in the shooting of Steven Dowdy and Michael Fletcher.

There’s also a Nov. 8, 2013 article about the incident by Lucas Laursen for Nature magazine,

On September 18 [2013], former Traversa Therapeutics CEO Hans Petersen went on a shooting spree. One of two people wounded was molecular biologist Steven Dowdy, a professor at University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, in La Jolla, and cofounder of Traversa, according to a San Diego police report.…

The rest of the article is behind a paywall.

OCSiAL (carbon nanotubes) makes moves: a production plant, maybe, in Israel and an international network

OCSiAl, the world’s largest nanotechnology business or developer of the revolutionary material TUBALL depending on the way the wind is blowing, has indicated interest in building a carbon nanotube production facility in Israel according to a Nov. 11, 2014 news item on the Economic Times (of India) website,

Nanotechnology company OCSiAl said on Tuesday [Nov. 11, 2014] it was in advanced talks to establish a production facility in southern Israel at an investment of $30 million.

OCSiAl said it intends to employ around 30 workers in Israel, mainly chemical engineers, industrial engineers, process engineers and automatic machine operators. It has started examining possible sites for the plant.

A Nov. 11, 2014 Time of Israel news article by David Shamah has more details,

The world’s biggest nanotechnology production company, OCSiAl, is shopping around in southern Israel for a site to build what could be the world’s largest nanotube production facility. It will produce as much as 50 tons of Single Wall Carbon Nanotubes (SWCNTs) a year – making it “possibly the largest producer of such nanotubes in the world,” the company announced Tuesday [Nov. 11, 2014].

….

… OCSiAl, … is the world’s biggest maker of the tiny SWCNTs. OCSiAl is an international nanotechnology company with operations in the US, UK, Germany, South Korea and Russia, headquartered in Luxembourg. The company employs 160 workers and is expected to hire 30 people for its Negev plant.

“Israel is one of the world’s leading knowledge and innovation centers in nanotechnology, and this is why we are interested in setting up a plant here,” said Konstantin Notman, vice president of OCSiAl. “We intend to deepen the contact with the Israeli market in all aspects – setting up our largest production facility here, enlarging our customer base, establishing contacts with Israeli dealers, and conducting cooperation with industrial companies and academic bodies.”

OCSiAL has a Nov. 13, 2014 news release, which despite the date seems to have inspired this news item about a SWCNT production plant in Israel.

There is this video produced by OCSiAL showing off some of its current production facilities,

On other fronts, OCSiAL has announced a worldwide partnership network program in a Nov. 12, 2014 news item on Azonano,

OCSiAl, developer of the revolutionary material TUBALL, is now focused on creating a worldwide partnership network. Facing a growing worldwide demand for new materials and solutions on one side, and a great interest of industrial manufacturers in providing these solutions without major changes in their business models and production processes on the other, OCSiAl presented TUBALL as an answer to these demands six months ago and now launches a partnership program.

An OCSiAL Nov. 14, 2014 news release, which despite the date seems to have originated the news item, provides more details,

TUBALL, first introduced in London this past spring, has gained attention of major brands in several industries since then. Not only due to its high “as produced” purity (75%+ of SWCNTs), but also because of its market price, which is 50 times lower than of other products with similar properties. That has been achieved by OCSiAl’s technology, which allows cost-efficient SWСNT synthesis in sufficient volumes and doesn’t require any further enrichment procedures.

To demonstrate TUBALL’s capabilities and to increase the number of its applications, OCSiAl has developed and licensed production technology for several TUBALL-based industrial modifiers: for cathodes of Li-ion batteries (TUBALL BATT), rubbers and tires (TUBALL RUBBER), thermoplastics (TUBALL PLAST), thermoset composites (TUBALL COMP) and for transparent conductive films (TUBALL INK). Modifiers for aluminium, concrete, paints and some other materials are under development.

The partnership program is compatible with various business models and works perfectly for different types of companies, including:

  • product manufacturers, who can produce TUBALL-enhanced versions of their current products;
  • solution providers, who can start their own production of TUBALL-based industrial modifiers (masterbatches and suspensions) using OCSiAl’s licensed technology for their own business, or to satisfy the demands of their clients;
  • large-scale distributors, who can introduce TUBALL and TUBALL-based modifiers to their local markets.

“We have great expectations for further prosperity of our business in cooperation with OCSiAl”, – says Managing Director of Evermore company Wu Lu-Hao. “We hope not only to attract new clients via highly sought TUBALL product, but to advance existing partnerships through offering new opportunities for development of our client’s products”

TUBALL’s introduction to the nanomaterials market served as a pivot point for many industries, which previously experienced difficulties with the industrial usage of nanomodifiers, due to their high cost and absence of an efficient synthesis technology, and the lack of any alternative solutions.

Now further development of a worldwide partnership network will remove the last geographical, technological and economical borders, empowering new wave of revolution in materials manufacture.

“Analytical studies suggest that the nanomaterials market will experience rapid growth in the next five to ten years, — says Yuri Koropachinskiy, OCSiAl’s President and co-founder — If you want to be there in 2025 — now is the time to start.”

You can find out more OCSiAl on its website; I last wrote about the company in a Sept. 11, 2014 posting.

A platform for nanotechnology collaboration: NanoTechValley

A Nov. 10, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a French company, NanoThinking, and its venture into a business and research platform for collaboration (Note: A link has been removed),

Following a conception period in close connection with innovation and nanotechnology professionals, NanoThinking now offers NanoTechValley: a collaborative platform dedicated to providers and users of nanotechnology, designed for two purposes: to stimulate the emergence of R&D projects and to offer access to cutting edge equipment proposed by the community.

Here’s more from a Nov. 2014 NanoThinking presentation document about NanoTechValley,

“Currently in a phase of emergence, the field of nanotechnology is still very atomized. This reality hampers the combination of the skills, projects and activities enclosed inside laboratories and industrial firms. The idea at the origin of our project was therefore to create a web platform which features would be designed specifically to foster the emergence of collaborative projects and arrange the meeting of offers and needs” explains Thomas Dubouchet, CEO at Nanothinking.

In order to address the needs of its future users, the platform includes the following features: secure access, possibility to share documents and hold discussion with multiple users, custom privacy settings and an invitation based system which will facilitate new participations in projects proposed by the community.

You can find out more about NanoThinking here (be sure to scroll down the page) and about NanoTechValley here.

This French project reminds me,  not only of Silicon Valley, but of a couple of NanoQuébec projects mentioned in a Sept. 19, 2012 posting (NanoQuébec sets up I-Nano, their version of an industrial dating service) and a May 13, 2013 posting (NanoQuébec and iNano get to the chapel while Canada Economic Development presides). While I described the project as a ‘dating service’, it could also be described as a platform designed to encourage collaborations between business and academe.

In any event, it’s good to see projects designed to help researchers connect with each other and connect with business partners wherever they may be located.

I last wrote about NanoThinking in a Dec. 30, 2013 posting which featured the company’s Global NanoTechMap.

Nanozen: protecting us from nanoparticles (maybe)

Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 the Vancouver Sun (Canada) featured a local nanotechnology company, Nanozen in an article by ‘digital life’ writer, Gillian Shaw. Unfortunately, the article is misleading. Before noting the issues, it should be said that most reporters don’t have much time to prepare stories and are often asked to write on topics that are new or relatively unknown to them. It is a stressful position to be in especially when one is reliant on the interviewee’s expertise and agenda. As for the interviewee, sometimes scientists get excited and enthused and don’t speak with their usual caution.

The article starts off in an unexceptionable manner,

Vancouver startup Nanozen is a creating real-time, wearable particle sensor for use in mines, mills and other industrial locations where dust and other particles can lead to dangerous explosions and debilitating respiratory diseases.

The company founder and, presumably, lead researcher Winnie Chu is described as a former professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia who has devoted herself to developing a new means of monitoring particles, in particular nanoparticles. Chu is quoted as saying this,

“The current technology is not sufficient to protect workers or the community when concentrations exceed the acceptable level,” she said.

It seems ominous and is made more so with this,

Chu said more than 90 per cent of the firefighters who responded to the 9/11 disaster developed lung disease, having walked into a site full of small and very damaging particles in the air.

“Those nanoparticles go deep into your lungs and cause inflammation and other problems,” Chu said.

It seems odd to mention this particular disaster. The lung issues for the firefighters, first responders and people living close to the site of World Trade Centers collapse are due to a complex mix of materials in the air. Most of the research I can find focuses on micrsoscale particles such as the work from the University of California at Davis’s Delta Group (Detection and Evaluation of the Long-Range Transport of Aerosols). From the Group’s World Trade Center webpage,

The fuming World Trade Center debris pile was a chemical factory that exhaled pollutants in particularly dangerous forms that could penetrate deep into the lungs of workers at Ground Zero, says a new study by UC Davis air-quality experts.

You can find the group’s presentation (-Presentation download (WTC aersols ACS 2003.ppt; 7,500kb)) to an American Chemical Society meeting in 2003 along more details such as this on their webpage,

The conditions would have been “brutal” for people working at Ground Zero without respirators and slightly less so for those working or living in immediately adjacent buildings, said the study’s lead author, Thomas Cahill, a UC Davis professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric science and research professor in engineering.

“Now that we have a model of how the debris pile worked, it gives us a much better idea of what the people working on and near the pile were actually breathing,” Cahill said. “Our first report was based on particles that we collected one mile away. This report gives a reasonable estimate of what type of pollutants were actually present at Ground Zero.

“The debris pile acted like a chemical factory. It cooked together the components of the buildings and their contents, including enormous numbers of computers, and gave off gases of toxic metals, acids and organics for at least six weeks.”

The materials found by this group were not at the nanoscale. In fact, the focus was then and subsequently on materials such as glass shards, asbestos, and metallic aerosols at the microscale, all of which can cause well documented health problems. No doubt effective monitoring would have been helpful It seems the critical issue in the early stages of the disaster was access to a respirator. Also, effective monitoring at later stages which did not seem to have happened would have been a good idea.

A 2004 (?) New York Magazine article by Jennifer Senior titled ‘Fallout‘ had this to say about the air content,

Here, today, is what we know about the dust and air at ground zero: It contained glass shards, pulverized concrete, and many carcinogens, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos, tens of thousands of pounds of lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. It also contained benzene. According to a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey, the dust was so caustic in places that its pH exceeded that of ammonia. Thomas Cahill, a scientist who analyzed the plumes from a rooftop one mile away, says that the levels of acids, insoluble particles, high-temperature organic materials, and metals were in most cases higher in very fine particles (which can slip deep into the lungs) than anyplace ever recorded on earth, including the oil fires of Kuwait.

The article describes at some length the problems for first responders and for those who later moved back into their homes nearby the disaster site under the impression the air was clean.

Getting back to the nanoscale, there were carbon nanotubes (CNTs) present as this 2009 research paper, Case Report: Lung Disease in World Trade Center Responders Exposed to Dust and Smoke: Carbon Nanotubes Found in the Lungs of World Trade Center Patients and Dust Samples, noted in relation to a sample of seven patients,

It may well be the most frequent injury pattern in exposed patients with severe respiratory impairment. b) Interstitial disease was present in four cases (Patients A, B, C, and E), characterized by a generally bronchiolocentric pattern of interstitial inflammation and fibrosis of variable severity. The lungs of these patients contained large amounts of silicates, and three of them showed nanotubes.

CNT of commercial origin, common now, would not have been present in substantial numbers in the WTC complex before the disaster in 2001. However, the high temperatures generated during the WTC disaster as a result of the combustion of fuel in the presence of carbon and metals would have been sufficient to locally generate large numbers of CNT. This scenario could have caused the generation of CNT that we have noted in the dust samples and in the lung biopsy specimens.

Given that CNTs are more common now, it would suggest that a monitor for nanoscale materials such as Chu’s proposed equipment could be an excellent idea. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what Chu is trying to achieve as she appears to make a blunder in the article,

Chu said environmental agencies require testing to distinguish between particles equal to or less than 10 microns and smaller particles 2.5 microns or less.

“When we inhale we inhale both size particles but they go into different parts of the lung,” said Chu, who said research shows the smaller the particle the higher the toxicity. [emphasis mine] The monitor she has developed can detect particles as small as one micron and even less.

The word ‘nanoparticle’ is often used generically to include, CNTs, quantum dots, silver nanoparticles, etc. as Chu seems to be doing throughout the article. The only nanomaterial/nanoparticle that researchers agree unequivocally cause lung problems are long carbon nanotubes which resemble asbestos fibres. This is precisely the opposite of Chu’s statement.

For validation, you can conduct your own search or you can check Swiss toxicologist Harald Krug’s (mentioned in my Nanosafety research: a quality control issue posting of Oct. 30, 2014) statement that most health and safety research of nanomaterials and the resultant conclusions are problematic. But he too is unequivocal with regard long carbon nanotubes (from Krug’s study, Nanosafety Research—Are We on the Right Track?).

Comparison of instillation and inhalation experiments: instillation studies have to be carried out with relatively high local doses and, thus, more often meet overload conditions than inhalation studies. Transient inflammatory effects have been observed frequently in both types of lung exposure, irrespective of the type of ENMs used for the experiment. This finding suggests an unspecific particle effect; moreover, the biological response seems to be comparable to a scenario involving exposure to fine dust. Prominent exceptions are long and rigid carbon nanotube (CNT) bundles, which induce a severe tissue reaction (chronic inflammation) that may ultimately result in tumor formation. Overall, the evaluated studies showed no indication of a “nanospecific” effect in the lung. [from the Summary section; 2nd bulleted point]

You can find the Nanozen website here but there doesn’t appear to be any information on the site yet. These search terms ‘about’, ‘team’, ‘technology’, and ‘product’ yielded no results on website as of Oct. 30, 2014 at 1000 hours PDT.

More on Nanopolis in China’s Suzhou Industrial Park

As far as I can tell, the 2015 opening date for a new building is still in place but, in the meantime, publicists are working hard to remind everyone about China’s Nanopolis complex (mentioned here in a Jan. 20, 2014 posting, which includes an architectural rendering of the proposed new building).

For the latest information, there’s a Sept. 25  2014 news item on Nanowerk,

For several years now Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) has been channeling money, resources and talent into supporting three new strategic industries: nano-technology, biotechnology and cloud computing.

In 2011 it started building a hub for nano-tech development and commercialization called Nanopolis that today is a thriving and diverse economic community where research institutes, academics and start-up companies can co-exist and where new technology can flourish.

Nanopolis benefits from the cross-pollination of ideas that come from both academia and business as it is right next door to the Suzhou Dushu Lake Science & Education Innovation District and its 25 world-class universities.

Earlier this year the University of California, Los Angles [sic] (UCLA) set up an Institute for Technology Advancement that is developing R&D platforms focusing on areas such as new energy technology and in particular nanotechnology. And Oxford University will soon join the growing list of world-class universities setting up centers for innovation there.

To develop a critical mass at Nanopolis SIP has offered incentive plans and provided incubators and shared laboratories, even including nano-safety testing and evaluation. It has also helped companies access venture capital and private equity and eventually go public through IPOs [initial public offerings {to raise money on stock exchanges}].

A Sept. 25, 2014 Suzhou Industrial Park news release (on Business Wire), which originated the news item, provides an interesting view of projects and ambitions for Nanopolis,

 To develop a critical mass at Nanopolis SIP has offered incentive plans and provided incubators and shared laboratories, even including nano-safety testing and evaluation. It has also helped companies access venture capital and private equity and eventually go public through IPOs.

Many companies in Nanopolis are already breaking new ground in the areas of micro and nano-manufacturing (nanofabrication, printed electronics and instruments and devices); energy and environment (batteries, power electronics, water treatment, air purification, clean tech); nano materials (nano particles, nano structure materials, functional nano materials, nano composite materials); and nano biotechnology (targeted drug delivery, nano diagnostics, nano medical devices and nano bio-materials).

Zhang Xijun, Nanopolis’ chief executive and president, says the high-tech hub goes beyond what typical incubators and accelerators provide their clients and he predicts that its importance will only grow over the next five years as demand for nano-technology applications continues to pick up speed.

“As more and more companies want upstream technology they are going to be looking more at nano-technology applications,” he says. “The regional and central government is taking this field very seriously–there is a lot of support.”

Nanopolis can also serve as a bridge for foreign companies in terms of China market entry. “Nanopolis has become like a gateway for companies to access the Chinese market, our research capabilities and Chinese talent,” he says.

Owen Huang, general manager of POLYNOVA, a nano-tech company that set up in SIP five years ago, counts Apple as one of its customers and has annual sales of US$4 million, says the excellent infrastructure, supply chain and international outlook in Nanopolis are part of its allure.

“This site works along the lines of foreign governments and there is no need to entertain local officials [as is often customary in other parts of China],” he says. “Everyone is treated the same according to international standards of business.”

Nanopolis also can serve as a kind of go-between for bilateral projects between businesses and governments in China and those from as far away as Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

In November 2012, for example, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Finland’s Ministry of Employment and the Economy built the China-Finland Nano Innovation Centre to jointly develop cooperation in the research fields of micro-nanofabrication, functional materials and nano-biomedicine.

SIP is also raising the profile of nano-tech and its importance in Nanopolis by hosting international conferences and exhibitions. From Sept. 24-27 [2014] the industrial park is hosting the ChiNano conference, which will be attended by more than more 700 nano-tech specialists from over thirty countries.

Zhang emphasizes that collaboration between academia and industry is an essential aspect of innovation and commercialization and argues that Nanopolis’ appeal goes beyond professor-founded companies. “The companies are in a position to provide good internship programs for students and there are also joint professorship positions made possible,” he explains. “We can also optimize school courses so they are better linked to industry wherever possible.”

Nanopolis’ creators expect that their holistic approach to business development will attract more than 300 organizations and businesses and as many as 30,000 people to the site over the next five years.

Wang Yunjun, chief executive of Mesolight, is one of the success stories. Mesolight, a nano-tech company that specializes in semi-conductor nano-crystals or quantum dots used in flat panel TV screens, mobile phones and lighting devices, recently secured US$2 million in the first round of venture capital funding with the help of the industrial park’s connections in the industry.

Two years ago Wang moved to Nanopolis from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had tried to get his company off the ground. He believes that returning to China and setting up his business in SIP was the best thing he could have done.

“The incubators in SIP are doing much more than the incubators in the United States,” he explains. “In the U.S. I was in an incubator but that just meant getting research space. Here I get a lot of resources. Most importantly, though, I was taught how to run a business.”

Albert Goldson, executive director of Indo-Brazillian Associates LLC, a New York-based global advisory firm and think tank, notes that while the immediate benefits of the industrial park are evident, there are even greater implications over the long-term, including the loss of talented Chinese who leave China to study or set up companies abroad.

“If one creates an architecturally compelling urban design along with a high-tech and innovative hub it will attract young Chinese talent for the long term both professionally and personally,” he says.

Jiang Weiming, executive chairman of the Dushu Lake Science & Education Innovation District concedes that SIP is not Silicon Valley and says that is why the industrial park is evaluating its own DNA and working out its own solutions.

“We have put in place a plan to train nanotech-specific talent and the same for biotech and cloud computing,” he says. “I think the collaboration between the education institutions and the enterprises is fairly impressive.”

Jiang points to faculty members who have taken positions as chief technical officers and vice general managers of science at commercial enterprises so that they have a better idea of what the company needs and how educational institutes can support them. And that in turn is helpful for their own research and teaching.

“The biggest task is to create a healthy ecosystem here,” he concludes.

So far, at least, the ecosystem in Nanopolis and across the rest of the industrial park appears to be thriving.

“The companies will find the right partners,” SIP’s chairman Barry Yang says confidently. “It’s not what the government is here for. What we want to do is provide a good platform and a good environment …Companies are the actors and we build the theaters.”

Between the news item and Business Wire, the news release is here in its entirety since these materials can disappear from the web. While Nanowerk does make its materials available for years but it can’t hurt to have another copy here.

The Nanopolis website can be found here. Note: the English language option is not  operational as of today, Sept. 26, 2014. The Chinano 2014 conference (Sept. 24 – 26) website is here (English language version available).

Referencing Indo-Brazillian Associates LLC, a New York-based global advisory firm and think tank, may have been an indirect reference to the group of countries known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) or, sometimes, as BRIC ((Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Either of these entities may be mentioned with regard to a shift global power.