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N.C. positioned to be leader in nanotechnology



The power of the extremely small is getting very big in North Carolina. Leaders from around the world will converge this week at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham for the annual Nanotech Commercialization Conference.

It’s fitting North Carolina is hosting this conference. With its rich mix of life-science leadership, intellectual fire power flowing from our universities, a history of major public investment in the sciences, and an ever-growing reputation in nanotechnology, the state is a serious international player in all things small.

How small? Nanotechnology refers to anything that is between one to 100 nanometers big. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Technology breakthroughs in the past few decades have enabled nanotech pioneers to custom build from the ground up – one atom at a time. And that translates into products that are environmentally friendly, stronger, smarter – and can have a radical impact on the ways things are produced in our world. In short, nanotechnology is sparking the next Industrial Revolution.

This revolution has been fueled by significant government investment from multiple nations, growing from $1 billion in 2000 to $8.4 billion in 2008. Commercial investment went from $900 million in 2000 to $8.6 billion in 2008. To date, the total U.S. government investment has been $18 billion, with $1.7 billion allocated for this fiscal year.

Nanotech is already commonplace in the products we use. It impacts everything from our clothes (through micro fibers that can repel water, adjust to temperature, and even change color) to how we combat global warming (through advances such as pollution eating compounds and highly efficient solar panels). Its greatest potential for immediate impact is in the health care field – from highly targeted drug delivery for cancer patients to early detection of diseases.

This is good news for North Carolina. Across the state, there are 35 research centers and departments focused on nanobiotechnology, ranging from N.C. A&T State University to UNC Charlotte. At East Carolina University, a team of medical, pharmacology and toxicology experts have developed a national reputation in nanotoxicology. Additionally, a 2009 report by nanotech trade publication “Small Times” placed N.C. State University third in the nation for nanotech commercialization and UNC-Chapel Hill as fifth. NCSU also was 10th in nanotech research.

There are also more than 40 nanobiotechnology companies across the state – driving innovation in drug delivery, drug discovery and advanced medical technology. One of the companies, Liquidia, was founded in 2004 by Joseph DeSimone and his colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill, and based on his research in material science and drug delivery. Liquidia just received a $10 million investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bolster the development of safer and more effective vaccines and therapeutics.

Blue Nano, an international nanomaterials manufacturer headquartered in Charlotte, produces large quantities of high quality nanomaterials for customers in the United States, Europe and Asia for use in clean energy products like solar cells, lithium ion batteries and fuel cell catalysts. They also serve the medical, automotive and electronics sectors among others.

To support companies like Liquidia and Blue Nano and to position North Carolina to be a national leader, the Center for Innovation of Nanobiotechnology was established in 2009. Much like the N.C. Biotechnology Center established by the N.C. General Assembly in 1981, COIN helps connect a network of entrepreneurial companies with the resources they need to thrive – including a supportive regulatory environment and investor and client introductions. This intentional industry-building has paid off significantly for the N.C. Biotech Center – positioning our state as one of the national leaders in biotech. With more than 500 companies employing more than 58,000 employees, the industry generates more than $64 billion in economic activity (a nice return for the $1.2 billion the state has invested in the past 10 years).

The nanobiotechnology sector holds similar potential. But according to Griffith Kundahl, COIN’s executive director, there are three critical strategies that the state needs to realize in order to reach this potential. This includes creating a workforce at the community college level skilled in electron microscopy and the other tools integral to nanotech growth; investing in improved capabilities and infrastructure, like nanomaterial characterization laboratories (that allow companies to test new nano-tech combinations more quickly and cheaply without having to send them out of state); and pairing these effective nanotechnologies with the state’s industrial and academic strengths in areas such as manufacturing, biotech, agriculture, textiles, aerospace and environmental health and safety.

Kundahl says, “if executed in a timely fashion, North Carolina will garner its well-deserved share of this trillion dollar market.” No small potatoes for our state’s economic future.


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Christopher Gergen is the CEO of Forward Ventures (supporting Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward), a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and co-author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at