While nanotechnology may still sound like science fiction to some people, the field is booming, with major corporations, including General Electric, Motorola, Dupont, IBM Pfizer and even Proctor & Gamble deeply invovled in commercialization efforts.
There are also more than 1,500 startup companies pursuing different applications of nanotechnology around the globe, according to Lux Research, a leading tracker of the field. To those who still aren't quite sure what nanotech is, the definition I find most helpful is "the ability to build, manipulation and control matter at the extraordinary small scale of less than 100 nanometers, the size of a few thousand atoms." At that tiny scale, matter takes on entirely new properties that offer opportunities in many fields, especially life sciences.
At least several hundred of the nanotech startups that have emerged in the last five years are focused on areas with implications for revolutionizing medicine, health care, genomics and related fronts in the years ahead.
Here's a quick survey of a few firms that will give you a sense of the dynamism and range of commercial innovation going on in bionanotechnology.
Nanoink, based outside Chicago, has developed a system for "writing" with molecules using a modifed atomic force microscope. One of its big plays today is to apply an extraordinary small, encrypted security label directly onto pharmaceutical pills. The goal is to prevent counterfeiting and assure traceability of drugs at the level of individual pills.
Evident Technologies, headquartered near Albany, NY, produces "quantum dots" nanoparticles of a few thousand atoms that can be produced with precise optical properties that enable them to glow in different colors. They have a variety of applications, and in life sciences they can help biotech and medical researchers study cellular structures such as proteins.
PsiVida, with offices in Perth, Australia and Boston, has developed nanoparticles of silicon structured with honeycombs that can absorb, for example, radioactive materials to kill liver tumors. The biodegradeable specks, currently in clinical trials, are injected directly into the tumor, but have a very limited range, so the treatment shouldn't harm healthy tissue. The same platform can be used to deliver controlled doses of drugs over very long time ranges, as much as a month. PsiVidia is also in the very small club, for now, of publically traded bionanotech companies.
Another on that short list is NuCryst Pharmaceuticals, which went public in December. NuCryst's core product is wound dressings and bandages embedded with nanoparticles of silver. At the nanoscale, silver kills germs and fights infections, speeding and improving healing, especially in stubborn chronic wounds and burns.
One of the most interesting, if early stage companies, in the intersection of biotech and nanotech is Cambrios. In fact, its not really a developer of life sciences, but rather draws on biotech, "directed evolution" and using biological tools to innovate electronics at the nanoscale. For more details on this company's fascinating work, see this story in Chemical & Engineering News.
This list could go on and on, since there are so many fertile efforts to innovate in nanotechnology and biotech today.
Accelrys, for example, is arguably the leader in advanced computer modelling and simulation for nanotechnology development. They are also an IBM partner.
While this short list is the tip of the iceberg, I'll leave you from one bit of wisdom from Horst Stormer, Nobel laureate, Columbia University physics professor an co-director of Columbia's National Science Foundation-funded nanocenter.
His presentation concluded that the central challenge (and key to understanding the emerging field of nanotechnology) is the idea of molecular self-assembly.
We are learning, at the nexus of chemistry, biology and physics, to coax atoms and molecules to organize themselves in intricate and valuable new patterns.
And while the societal benefits and impact of nanotech will unfold, gradually in the short term, and more markedly over the coming decade, humans are within reach of a major new milestone: our ability to precisely process matter at the building block level of atoms and molecules.
Jack Mason, IBM Strategic Communications, HealthNex Producer