Editor’s note: Jim Roberts is Founder and Chief Connections Officer of RedSpire Connections. RedSpire Connections is a new marketing, lead generation, business development and host of industry related events. Jim is a former executive with the Center of Innovation for NanoBiotechnology (COIN), a former employee of the NC Dept of Commerce and ran the Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network (BRAIN) in Asheville.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – In April, the North Carolina Department of Commerce and other regional organizations hosted a jam packed conference of 300 nanotechnology sector professionals. During a panel called “How to Create 54 More Liquidias,” Dr. Charles Hamner said that the nanotech sector could be three times the size of North Carolina’s second largest industry, biotechnology. And if you don’t know Dr. Hamner, he was executive director of the North Carolina Biotech Center for 14 years and just won the inaugural Full Steam Lifetime Achievement Award.

But now the question is, how do we get there as a state to encourage the growth of the nanotech sector to become a larger employer?

North Carolina has a global leader in nanotechnology with Liquidia. Liquidia has over 50 employees, has landed $10 million equity investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and just landed a huge deal with GSK for drug development technology. Liquidia’s success is based on PRINT technology created by Dr. Joe DeSimone and the other brilliant people in his labs at UNC Chapel Hill and NC State.

North Carolina has just invested in the Joint School of NanoScience and NanoEngineering (JSNN) on the east side of Greensboro with lots of room to grow. There are currently two buildings with plans for many more. The Gateway Research Park with JSNN is a promising public – private partnership with state of the art equipment. JSNN is hosting a Nanotech and Manufacturing Conference in August.

Xanofi was recently featured in an article in Raleigh about a recent angel investment by the Inception Micro Angel Fund (IMAF-RTP). Xanofi has also announced the creation of an accelerator to house startups such as NC State spinout VaporPulse.

NanoForge has seen sales success through working with Asian countries. Steven Warwick, CEO, is a newcomer to the Triangle, but helped successfully guide the company through the grant process at the NC IDEA organization.

RTI has had some recent movement within the nano sector. Michele Ostraat has recently completed research on a nanotech registry through a grant from NIH. RTI has also added the very talented Ginger Rothrock, one of the co-founders of Liquidia, to strengthen the commercialization team. RTI has been very supportive of statewide nanotech efforts through participation and sponsorship including the 2010 MANCEF COMS International Conference hosted in Greensboro.

Wake Forest University has strength in nanotech through doctors like David Carroll, David Williams, Bill Gmeiner and Roger Cubiciotti. David Carroll is one of the most published people in the global nanotech market. He has several startups based on his research. David Williams, maybe not a household name like Dr. Tony Atala, is a rock star in China and Europe in nanotech and regenerative medicine.

Bill Gmeiner runs Salzburg Therapeutics, with promising technology with cancer research. NanoMedica, run by Roger Cubicciotti, has new technology with next generation DNA Sequencing.

And in a rapid fire listing, Triangle resident Rob Burns has recently joined a nanotech based venture capital fund called Harris and Harris.

Katrin Burt of Intersouth Partners has a deep nanotech background.

NC State University has real strengths with Dr. Ruben Carbonell (BTEC) as well as the nano and textile program. East Carolina University has a focus on nanotoxicology. UNC Wilmington has a brilliant researcher, Dr. Andrea Bourdelais, who just got a huge grant from the NC Biotech Center. UNC Charlotte has nano related assets in the optical sector. A nano startup called Nanoly just won the Duke Startup Challenge.

Why not on Radar?

So with all of these significant assets and strengths, why is nanotechnology not higher on the radar in the North Carolina economic discussion?

1. Nanotechnology is not really an industry but a platform technology used in other industries. Nano is used in NanoBiotechnology (Carriers or Drug Delivery), Aerospace (Composites), Automotive (Coatings), Energy (Catalysts), Cosmetics, Textiles, and Technology Hardware. Someone recently said, if a nanotech company is acquired by a life sciences company, the nanotech title typically disappears. Or the Sunday NY Times article on the Gates Foundation investment said Liquidia was a biotech company, not a nanotech company.

2. Regulatory guidance is a real issue for insurers, investors and other concerns. The FDA has not given much guidance yet and that uncertainty is a real problem with people dealing with risk.

3. Funding is an issue with a lack of understanding of the potential of nanotechnology. As an investor told me recently, platform technologies are not usually on the radar of investors.

In my opinion, there is the most work to be done here with potential investors. We need to work on getting the two sides much closer to the middle to encourage more deal flow. We need to work with the companies towards the goal of more SBIR grants, more management training through FastTrac type of programs and infrastructure for commercialization of university research with effective accelerators/incubators.

But we also need to work with investors (angel, venture and corporate) to help them understand the potential of the nanotech sector. Many investors just say “No, I don’t get nano, so I am not interested.”

We recently hosted a day with an active sophisticated angel investor group and introduced them to some regional nanotech experts that could advise the investors on the potential of individual nanotech deals. This perceived lack of funding can be overcome with having the right people in the room.


RedSpire Connections is hosting a “Help Us Help You” event on July 19th at CMG Partners in Durham, sponsored by RTI, MBHB Law Firm, Novozymes. If interested in participating in this nanotech sector event, please contact Jim Roberts at redspire4@gmail.com or 919-428-4957.

(c) Jim Roberts 2012