Editor’s note: Jim Roberts is the director of Membership Services and Fundraising for the Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology, based in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – At one of my first CED Venture Conferences in 2002, I remember being impressed by the brilliant venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who was actively investing in nanotechnology. He was so passionate about the topic that his mouth could not keep up with the speed of his thoughts.

The nanotechnology field then moved out of the spotlight a bit as it was discovered to be much more of a platform than a standalone industry. Today nanotechnology is featured in technologies mostly in coatings, composites and catalysis. For example: Drug delivery at the nanoscale to target and penetrate the cancer cell, the nanocoatings that reduce friction in the transportation industry and the nanocomposites that make airplanes and cars lighter to reduce fuel consumption.

Last week the COIN (Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology) staff participated in the 10-year anniversary of the signing of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) at a summit in Washington D.C.. The NNI was the largest federal funding of research since the Apollo Space Program. We saw examples of the commercial success of the NNI legislation in companies such as A123, the battery company that may change the way the world drives in the near future with the Chevy Volt. This company received a $100,000 SBIR grant in 2002 and has leveraged that funding into venture funding and a public offering.

Two very promising companies from North Carolina were among the few private sector companies selected to present to the national and global attendees. Joe DeSimone, the co-founder of Liquidia, which is often cited as one of the five most promising companies in nanotechnology in the US, discussed the ways the PRINT platform is impacting vaccines. Moritz Beckman of XinRay Systems, another COIN member, highlighted how carbon nanotube field emitters are changing medical and security x-ray systems. Both presentations were inspiring and increased my pride in living in North Carolina as these experts presented alongside companies and key thought leaders from Boston and California.

The organizations central to the success of the NNI over the last ten years include the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), DARPA, the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and more. These organizations have excellent leadership that recognizes the challenges in this emerging field and are committed to ensuring the U.S. maintains a leadership position and drives economic growth from nanotechnology innovations and products. Travis Earles from the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the White House hosted the event.

Travis will also be the keynote speaker at the North Carolina Nanotechnology Commercialization Conference scheduled for March 29th and 30th at the Barnhardt Center at UNC Charlotte.

We also saw the rock stars of the nanotechnology field speak about their passion for the future of the technology in their products. Craig Barrett, former CEO/Chairman of Intel spoke about the importance of Moore’s Law and the role that nanotech has played in continuing to achieve Moore’s law well beyond the initial predictions. Mr. Barrett also mentioned that at one time the venture capital arm of Intel invested 90% of their capital in the United States, but that number is now down to 30 percent. Mr. Barrett later visited the booth of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering based in Greensboro, quite a treat for the young joint venture between UNC Greensboro and NC A&T State University.

Norm Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, discussed the importance of research and development for the future of the US economy. He mentioned that US corporations spend three times as much on litigation as they do on R&D. He also discussed the brilliant comparison of challenges of the aviation industry to the importance of continuing to fund R&D even in tough times: If a company needs to find ways to cut weight in an overloaded plane, you could never remove the engine. Research is one of the main engines of the American economy. President Obama has used similar analogies in a few recent speeches.

There are some challenges in the nanotechnology field, and one of the most important issues is the regulatory landscape. How are nanoparticles going to be  regulated in regards to the environmental, health, and safety concerns? How will the nanotechnology field find funding in tough economic times with a new political setting? The nano2 NNI budget under current consideration contains resources for these factors and will hopefully pass through with minimal changes.

I recently saw Newsweek Editor Fareed Zakaria speak in Charlotte, he mentions in his book “The Post American World”, the promise of nanotechnology and biotechnology as the industries where the United States has a bright future for the creation of new jobs. The United States and North Carolina have a head start in both of these fields and are well positioned to flourish. But I thought Joe DeSimone put it best, “Vision without resources is clearly a hallucination.”

North Carolina has garnered a major role with around 40 nanobiotech companies, 50 nanotech companies, and 35 academic research centers focused on nanotechnology innovation including the new Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering.

Our state, region and the U.S. must continue to invest in the future of nanotechnology to stay ahead of the growth in Asia and other countries with rapidly growing market share.

COIN would like to invite you to participate in the Nanotechnology industry in the region by attending the conference in March in Charlotte and an international nanotechnology conference coming to North Carolina in August of 2011.

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