The economic slowdown has had its effects on high technology businesses—particularly those engaged in early-stage nanotechnologies—impacting issues such as investment funding, workforce, supply chain, equipment, and revenues. Broader implications for the future economic growth and proliferation of emerging nanotechnologies and nanomanufacturing capabilities remain difficult to assess. Forecast scenarios range from slight corrections of previous growth trends to complete interruptions of new technology growth and implementation. While the long-term impact will likely be somewhere in between these extremes, there have been significant changes over the past two years in key enablers for early-stage nanotechnologies that will impact the transition from fundamental research to scaled manufacturing of nano-enabled products. But the prognosis is not all negative: it turns out to be a good news, bad news scenario.
First, the bad news. It is anticipated that technology growth will remain slow for the immediate future (2-3 years) as large companies become leaner and more efficient, supply chains remain top heavy with decreased demand, new spending or delayed expansions, and, most importantly, corporate investors shelve new manufacturing lines that support emerging capabilities and infrastructure. The impact on research has also been felt as academic institutions receive less research funding from corporations that are forced to make difficult financial decisions. For start-up ventures and small businesses, their limited venture capital has become laden with greater scrutiny of markets and opportunities and shorter time-to-revenue demands to spin-up a technology business. For early-stage technologies, angel investment substantially dissipated, thereby increasing the need for critical seed or gap funding. In essence, companies having sufficient cash reserves, access to funds, and supply chain availability will be able to ride out the storm; those without will struggle to stay above water. Despite this dismal outlook, there are some positive notes that will render businesses stronger in the long run and likely provide the necessary boost for the scaled manufacturing of nanotechnologies.
The good news is that large corporations have adjusted the way they engage in research and development by proactively seeking consortia or partnership-based activities to continue progress along key industry road maps. As a result, there has been significant activity in mergers, acquisitions, and strategic partnering of nanotechnology companies, both at the regional and national levels. From the standpoint of fundamental research, both state and federal programs have injected significant new funding into core research programs at academic institutions and corporate partnerships, funding which was previously shared among separate companies and thus subject to redundancy and waste. Funding has also gone to joint small business-academic collaborations funded through SBIR/STTR programs. Additionally, large collaborative funding programs by several federal government agencies, including NIH, NIST (Technology Innovation program), and DOE (Energy Frontier Research Centers and Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy), have funded individual and collaborative projects focusing on critical national interests in manufacturing, renewable energy and infrastructure, and human health technologies, for which nanotechnology plays a leading role. As such, important grand challenges facing the U.S. economy in the areas of energy and environment, manufacturing, and water and critical materials resources, are being addressed in conjunction with an economic recovery plan that will potentially launch a new era in scientific discovery and transition to a new generation of nano-enabled products impacting key societal challenges.
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