A big thanks to Tim Harper for both his insight and for taking the time to answer questions I had about the report, Report on Global Nanotechnology Funding and Impact (Global Funding of Nanotechnologies and Its Impact) released earlier this week on July 13, 2011.
(a) First, could you tell me a little bit about you and about Cientifica?
My background is hardcore nanotechnology – I spend years building and installing surface science instrumentation for VG Instruments, one of the first companies to commercialise the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, or at least we did our best. But that was back in the days when a PDP 1-11 was the data system and successfully acquiring an image and interpreting it usually required a trip to Zurich to see Gerd Binnig and Heini Röhring [Note: They won the Nobel prize for their efforts on scanning tunnelling microscope]. I also spent a lot of time on Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry – hitting surfaces with beams of ions and then collecting what we knocked off. After that I ran the electron microscopy section at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) labs in Holland before buying a lot of focussed ion beam systems and atomic force microscopes so that we could take things apart atom by atom if we suspected that they may fail half way to Mars!
Cientifica started off as a spin out in 1996 doing contract research for ESA before moving into networking scientists, advising venture capital firms about technology and producing information about nanotechnologies. Over the past ten years our work has been used by most governments, and we have been instrumental in designing or advising on a large number of national nanotechnology projects. After tracking nanotechnology for 12 years and usually being more or less right (blush) we have an increasing number of people who use us as a sanity check for projects and investments. But often the biggest successes are the least visible such as advising a client not to put a few hundred million dollars into manufacturing carbon nanotubes for which there was no channel to market.
(b) Is your latest report, 2011 Global Funding of Nanotechnologies and Its Impact, a successor of sorts (industrial sectors rather than countries are prominently listed) to your 2008 Nanotechnology Opportunities report?
It’s a progression from our first edition of the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report in 2002. In those days people just wanted to know what nanotechnology was, and to cut through a lot of the hype and disinformation. In 2002, 99.9% of people thought that nanotechnology was all about tiny robots. Ten years later it’s probably 90%, but at least the 10% involved in science policy, whether in government or companies know what nanotech really is. What people want now is some usable information – how does it affect my business or industry, and how can I take advantage of it. Most of our work is for private clients, who range from start ups through to multinationals and governments, and who tap our expertise in predicting the future impact of technology.
We still do a huge amount of work in industrials sectors, and we have publications in medicine and energy in the pipeline which we hope will allow people to cut through the hype and understand what (and when) the market opportunity will really be.
(c) Why did you choose to focus on nano R&D spending and potential economic impacts? Is it something to do with all of the talk about innovation?
We wanted to look first at the funding in both dollar and purchasing power parity terms as one R&D dollar gets more in China that it does in the US. There is a lot of national pride at stake about who is spending the most, and if you look at per capita spending it gets even more interesting. But getting technology to market isn’t just about making huge amounts of government money available. 90-95% of science funding doesn’t generate anything of any economic use (although it can be very useful for furthering scientific knowledge) so we need to look at how that 5-10% gets to market. I have had a close relationship with the World Economic Forum for many years which also helps us move away from merely looking at science funding to looking at its economic impact, and we also use a lot of data from the World Bank, OECD [Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation], and various government studies when we try to model technology diffusion.
Over the years we have developed a quite sophisticated model that allows us to translate these various inputs into fairly good, and quite specific, market predictions. In the past 12 years some people have described our market forecasts as cynical or ultra conservative, but if you look back at what we’ve said and what actually happened, I think you’ll find that we were just being realistic. I know that some people want to see big numbers, but it must be all those years as a scientist that makes me satisfied with accurate numbers, no matter what the magnitude!
Innovation isn’t a problem, the academic system is stuffed to the gills with bright and innovative people, but convincing the rest of the world that they need your innovation is the stumbling block. When we looked at the ability of countries to take advantage of their technology funding, countries such as the US and Germany scored highly as they have plenty of commercial-facing research, a strong tradition of industry-academic partnerships, good government support for technology (and whatever individual academics may say it could be far far worse) and domestic industry hungry for technology to maintain their competitive advantage. What surprised us was the low ranking of the UK. While possessing some of the best universities in the world, the UK economy is predominantly service-based, and real estate and coffee shops tend to be less enthusiastic consumers of nanotechnology than chemical companies and auto manufacturers.
(d) It seems most countries are concerned/worried about the levels of their nano science research, their innovation, and consequent economic prospects. Is there any country that seems confident about its nano economic prospects and why do you think that is?
That is partly true, but most governments do not have a joined up strategy which can cause significant structural problems in the future. Post financial crisis, the emphasis has shifted to trimming budgets rather than making long term strategic investments, which is what nanotechnology is, and this gives us two major problems.
Firstly, there just isn’t enough support for early stage spin outs. There is a financial desert to cross between being a full time academic and having a company with enough proof of concept to attract angel or VC [venture capital] funding. Unless governments address this aspect it really doesn’t matter how much innovation is produced by the academic sector, most of it will go nowhere (other than the parts cherry picked by large companies). We really need to start thinking about the path that innovation takes to market, and to make that as smooth as possible.
Secondly, and more seriously, we are approaching a dangerous time in human history. Science and technology are moving faster than ever before thanks to the automation of lab systems and almost real time sharing of results through online journals. At the same time, people are increasingly distrustful of technology, perhaps as a result of it being so far removed from everyday life, which leads to whole areas of science such as GMOs [genetically modified organisms] or nuclear energy becoming tainted. So while we have increasing pressure on food, water, energy, health and every other resource caused by a rising global population, we are being denied the tools which could help improve the conditions of people across the globe. I’m deeply involved in an initiative that sprung from our emerging technologies work at the World Economic Forum, which involves the setting up of a global Centre for Emerging Technologies Intelligence, with the aim of ensuring that we can and will develop the technologies needed to provide clean water, better health and cheap food to the world, whether that comes from nanotechnology, industrial biotechnology, or any other emerging technology. But the project is less about the technology than making sure that the importance of technology is recognised by governments and international organisations. It is no good running around firefighting crises when we could be thinking ahead and averting them. There’s still a long way to go, but we are talking to a number of governments who are keen to host the centre.
(e) I find it interesting that regions/countries (Alberta, Texas, Iran, and increasingly, other Middle Eastern countries) that have been dependent on oil as a source of wealth are heavily invested in nanotechnology. Are there any conclusions to be drawn from that?
Diversification is the name of the game. It is very dangerous for local or national economies to be dependent on a single sector, even when it is one as lucrative as oil & gas. We have done a lot of work in the Middle East, and the issue there is also one of employment. Most of the expertise for oil & gas is imported and in Gulf countries that have gone from fishing villages to major international cities within a generation there is a real need to provide employment for their youthful populations. Nanotechnology and life sciences are seen as industries of the future and are increasingly central to strategy in the Gulf.
Iran is a different case, and it’s a place I have visited several times to discuss nanotechnologies. While the world may have some issues with the Iranian government, the scientists and business people I deal with are just like the rest of us. Iran has some great science going on, and the US embargo has meant that they have had to be quite ingenious to get access to even basic instrumentation such as electron microscopes. However, there’s a large domestic market, and the Iranians are manufacturing everything from scientific instruments to nanomaterials. When the political issues are solved, I think a few people will be surprised by the level of sophistication of Iranian nanoscience. [Note: For an example of what Tim is referring to, see the Fast Company article (Using 3-D Printers To Mock Up New Teeth) by Morgan Glendaniel, as it mentions the impact that Iranian scientists have had on this new nano-enabled technology.)
(f) Is there anything that you couldn’t include in the report but wanted to? For example, a country that doesn’t register yet in terms of its spending or innovation quotient numbers but that you think is quietly gearing up.
Our dataset is very large, and this report is just the tip of the iceberg as we have clients who pay for the detailed information. As a result the published report just concentrates on the top level numbers for the major economies. There are a few places that really stand out though, such as Singapore. The science and technology infrastructure in Singapore is world class, but it is a small country with no real domestic market so the challenge will be commercialising the fruits of its nanotechnology projects. The current strategy is based on licensing to multinationals but that alone won’t justify the investment so I suspect we will see a lot more partnering around the region, leveraging Singaporean technology in regional markets as, for example, SingTel has successfully done.
A real disappointment is India, with their leading Scientist, CNR Rao, being recently quoted as thinking that the country is in danger of missing the boat. [Note: You can find some of the quotes in this July 8, 2011 posting.] I have spent large amounts of time in India and I know the raw talent is there, but the creaky infrastructure and lack of political will means that they are currently performing way below their potential.
(g) I will be asking a question or two about the Canada and nanotechnology from a global perspective but I’d like to learn a little bit about the project/workshop you delivered for the Canadian government some years ago. As I recall, it was an analysis of the Canadian effort at that point in time. And, are there any plans for future presentations in Canada?
We did some work for the NRC [National Research Council] a few years ago and also attended a few conferences in Canada in the early part of the decade [2000s] but since then I haven’t been back, although judging from the activity that is going on and looking at where Canada is on the rankings then maybe I should spend more time there!
(h) Generally, how would you describe Canada and its role in the global nanotechnology effort?
Our numbers indicate that it is a good place to be, similar to Australia, The Netherlands, Singapore and the Nordic economies, which is what you would expect. The US, Russia and China are way out in front with huge funding programs, so the way to compete is obviously to be smarter and find niches rather than trying to cover every aspect of what is a huge field. Knowing where you want the economy to go and nurturing the technologies that will help you achieve that is always a good strategy. But governments are usually terrible at picking winners. Most politicians and civil servants are often ill equipped to advise people on how to run a business, so creating the right environment for innovation and then letting entrepreneurs get on with it is probably the best option.
(i) Are there any suggestions you’d make to Canadian policymakers as to improving Canada’s situation?
Think I just answered that above. In a nutshell it’s not about how much; it’s about how effective the funding is.
(j) How much work is it to write a report like 2011 Global Funding of Nanotechnologies and Its Impact?
It is harder than it looks. We have been collecting these numbers for the last 10 years but that’s only part of it. We also have to build and maintain relationships with a huge network of government agencies and scientists around the world so that we can understand which numbers are real. A lot of governments are very happy to announce funding for nanotechnology, but that doesn’t actually mean that it is available and much of what what we try to do is confirm that all the funding we track is real cash and not just a political announcement.
(k) Is there anything you’d like to add?
After 12 years and almost $70 billion in funding we have to keep thinking about why we do science and how we can encourage its results to be translated into both economic and social well-being. The technology transfer process is very inefficient and the path is strewn with many obstacles. If this was a business process someone would have found a way to streamline it by now.
Thank you Tim Harper for going ‘over and above’ in answering my questions.
One final note, in addition to being a ‘serial tech entrepreneur’ (ETA July 18, 2011: I added the word tech to ‘serial entrepreneur’] and CEO (chief executive officer) of Cientifica, Tim co-owns a fashion boutique, Foxbat in the Spitalfields district of London, UK (proving that people involved in nanotechnology have a broad set of interests).