There are a couple of recent columns by Tim Harper, a well known and longstanding figure in the ‘nano community’, about business predictions and the nanotechnology and graphene markets, respectively I want to feature here. (See my July 15, 2011 interview with Harper about his report on global funding of nanotechnology for a description of him, his then-business, Cientifica, and his perspective on the nanotechnology enterprise at that time.)
One of Harper’s most recent writings, in a Jan. 2, 2015 column on Azonano, is a look back at business predictions for nanotechnology (Note: Links have been removed). What makes this particularly interesting is that Tim was part of the UK effort in its earliest days and has consulted with governments (including Canada) on their nanotechnology and commercialization efforts,
One of the most widely repeated predictions for nanotechnologies was its role in the creation of a trillion dollar industry by 2015, predicted by Mike Roco [one of the moving forces behind the US National Nanotechnology Initiative enacted in 2000] and his colleagues at the National Science Foundation.2
Looking back at the original National Nanotechnology Initiative forecasts, the biggest economic contributions of nanotechnology came from materials ($340bn), electronics ($300bn), pharmaceuticals ($180bn), chemicals ($100bn), transportation ($70bn) and sustainability ($100bn).
But as is often the case with headline numbers, these were not the product of a huge data collection exercise, but estimates based on a few reports and private communications (see below).
The large numbers caused some debate at the time as to whether it was the value of the nanotechnology, or the value of the product, that should be used. One oft-cited example was that in some analyses, the addition of a nanotech-based anti-scratch paint to an automobile would result in the entire value of the car being added to the “nanotechnology market’ column, while in others it would be just the value of the nanoparticles used.
My preference at the time was to use the value of something that would not have existed without the nanotechnology; the automobile clearly would have done, but the anti-scratch paint would not.
While market numbers are always speculative I can still point to one prediction I got right: “there is not, and never will be, a nanotechnology industry”.3
Fifteen years on from the inception of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, there’s not much to carp about. Nanotechnology research is well funded globally, and leading to exactly the kind of breakthroughs that were envisaged back in the late 90’s. As nobody managed to predict the iPhone, Twitter or Facebook, that is remarkable.
The greatest legacy of the mythical “trillion dollar market” was the fear of missing out (or even of allowing the US to dominate), and that was sufficient to spur many similar efforts in other countries. This, combined with widespread adoption of the Internet, made nanotechnology the first truly global scientific revolution.
For anyone who likes to research, Tim provides a list of references used to support his contentions.
He then writes a Feb. 4, 2015 column on Azonano about graphene , which provides an interesting contrast (Note: Links have been removed),
The discussion of the trillion dollar market for nanotechnologies has generated quite a bit of interest and discussion. Anyone who remembers nanotechnology a decade ago will notice that graphene is going through a similar period of hype.
The one thing missing from all the discussion of graphene is any inflated market numbers. In fact, compared to the frenzied overhyping of nanotechnologies, the estimates for graphene markets tend to be conservative in the extreme.
A rash of recent market estimates towards the end of last year put the international market for graphene in the range of a few hundred million dollars. That’s pretty much the same amount as has been raised by or invested in graphene producers around the world, and investing $150 million to unlock a market worth $150 million doesn’t seem to make very much sense to me. So are graphene producers completely wrong, or are the market estimates wildly inaccurate?
Confusingly, it appears that everybody is right. It just happens that we are talking about different kinds of graphene at different points in the value chain.
… Some have bought pure graphene to play with themselves, but in reality industry wants to buy inks, dispersions and master batches, rather than have the hassle of taking a bag of black powder and adapting it for applications which may be rather ill-defined at this point. Providing those ready-to-use products is what will unlock the market for graphene.
This turns out to be rather good news for graphene producers, because in general an ink containing perhaps a 20% loading of graphene nano platelets (GNPs) can represent a 5000% markup over the cost of the raw material. A rather simplistic extrapolation from this suggests a $1 billion graphene intermediates market within five years.
And it gets better. Some of the GNPs show good potential as a carbon black substitute – a 2% loading of GNP could perform at least as well as a 20% loading of carbon black. Even if the GNP price is 7-8 times higher than carbon black, there is still a significant margin for the end user to play with.
Woohoo! Now that’s something I can probably talk to investors about without being shown the door after my second PowerPoint slide. And when the inevitable comment, “you predict a market of a billion while these guys say 100 million,” comes up, I’ll have a snappy comeback.
There’s more information about Tim and there are more posts on his website, timharper.net. While, he does offer three different links to additional biographical information from timharper.net, I have a particular affection for his Visualize.me bio page.