By Helen Kim:

On November 13, 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted “Breaking the Barriers: The BIG Business of Nanotechnology” at 1615 H Street NW in Washington, D.C. The conference focused on issues of commercialization, regulatory concerns, and consumer education for the emerging field of nanotechnology. Events included speeches by Senator Ron Wyden; Dean Ronald McNeil of the business school at the University of Illinois-Springfield; John Marburger, science advisor to President Bush; and two roundtable discussions composed of educators, investors, researchers, and government officials.

Senator Wyden focused his remarks on the reauthorization of his bill, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, and the government’s need to look at tailored incentives, such as an X Prize, to generate investment and innovation in the field. He also emphasized that nanotechnology comes forward at a key time in the debate, where the country is still trying to understand the technology. He noted that because it is a pivotal time for the private sector, it is a good time to deal with ethical and health questions. He touted Oregon as a model for bringing together the government, universities and startups in a public/private partnership to fund a new nanoscience and technology institute.

Dean McNeil spoke at length about why nanotechnology is important, barriers, and recommended efforts to overcome barriers. First, he noted that commercialization of the field was important because it creates meaningful jobs and maintains US economic competitiveness. Second, he stated that potential barriers include a lack of vision, will, and commitment from stakeholders. Moreover, there is a gap between scientific research and commerce, about 10 years, and small companies face barriers of funding that favors research over development and commercialization. He also advocated for cooperation between government and industry and encouraged the government to motivate during the gap phase to get money to science research labs before venture capitalists can pick it up. Finally, Dean McNeil recommended that the industry overcome these barriers by setting up national nanotechnology initiatives, getting out prototypes such as the prizes mentioned by Senator Wyden, nurturing scientific research without bureaucracy, and helping United States executive and legislative enhance their vision and assist to plan and support for US to be globally competitive.

In the first roundtable discussion, Regulatory Cooperation, the participants focused on environmental issues, including the EPA’s nano scale materials stewardship program, potential risks of nanotechnology and applications, workforce issues including immigration, and government cooperation in funding the field of nanotechnology. They also discussed developing good business strategies for developing sustainable products and protecting the intellectual property of researchers and scientists.

In the second roundtable discussion, the participants emphasized the importance of commercialization in minimizing the gap between scientific research and commerce and recommended of ventures between the public and private sectors as a possible solution. Participants discussed communicating to the public and to investors about a technology that is proactive for investment. They identified key barriers to nanotechnology commercialization, which included scientific complexity, lack of investment in energizing markets, and potential for setbacks to the industry. They also noted factors important for conveying the availability of the technology to investors, including to get the investors to trust the source of information, get a sense of benefits, and degree and control of the risk.

Mr. Marburger rounded out the conference with his keynote address emphasizing the need for standards in such an newly emerging field.

A full webcast of the conference can be found here.