Iran has always been a source of fascination, a place of ancient culture and history and now a country making a lot of noise about science and technology, so I was pleased to be invited by the Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council to attend the Iran Nano 2011 exhibition in Tehran.
As I’d spent the previous few days in Taiwan at the Taiwan Nano 2011 exhibition, it was a good opportunity to contrast the two events and try to judge whether there was any truth to the claims that Iran is becoming a world-class player in nanotechnology.
The unique aspect of Iranian nanotechnology is that because of the various international sanctions over the past thirty years it’s not the kind of place where you can just order an AFM or an electron microscope from a major US or Japanese supplier. As a result there was lots of home made kit on display, from sputtering systems, through surface analysis to atomic force microscopes. Looking at the results, the home grown kit was certainly more than adequate, with the main difference being the red LED displays and 20 turn potentiometers, things that have been long since replaced by digital control in the rest of the world. Does that stop an AFM from producing decent results though? Probably not. There was also a lot of discussion about selling this very low cost instrumentation outside Iran, although I suspect that IP issues may then become a concern.
So, Iranian scientists have engineered their way around the embargo on selling high tech equipment of Iran – and there was no shortage of high-end laptops on display either – but so often science is not about how much stuff you have in your lab, but what you can do with it.
The human resource development programs in Iran were also impressive. Iran has no shortage of universities, and it is also a big country with a significant population. There was mention of the country producing over 800 nanotechnology PhDs a year which is a huge number when compared with the rest of the region. A major part of one of the ceremonies I attended was the award of cash prizes to research students and small businesses, and that is always a great motivator.
There is plenty going on, much more than one would expect, so how has Iran managed to achieve this? It’s a combination of political support (and well done to the various scientists who managed to achieve this) and coordination. INIC runs the whole show, something describes as “Supreme supervision in realization of goals and programs.” This ranges from involving school children in nanotechnology to commercialisation and international development of technologies, and having a single coordinated and focussed vision rather than a set of squabbling and overlapping agencies seems to be something we all can learn from.
One of the other impressive parts of the program is the creation of the Tech-Market Services Institute, which specifically focuses on commercialisation of nanotechnologies and shows what good coordination can achieve. Not so much an incubator as a collection of third party experts whose services are subsidised by INIC, the goal is to make the transition from basic research to commercial products as smooth and painless as possible, leaving academics to worry about the technology rather than legal or financial issues. This provides a pathway from assessing the level of technology readiness through assistance with patenting, documentation, market surveys, business plan writing, standards & certification, financial aid and venture capital and finally international marketing. Nice touches such as paying 80% of patenting costs seem to really encourage commercial development, with the remaining 20% paid for through the program if the patent application proves successful.
So what of the claims that Iran is becoming a world player in nanotechnology, ranking fourth in the world in terms of publications? Certainly the amount of papers published in international journals is rapidly increasing, and using this as raw data to justify being a world power is no more than many academics departments do. Discussing this with senior editors at some of the higher impact journals indicates that although the volume is high the quality is not, but it is improving. One would not expect Iran to be at the level of Germany, but it is among the best of the developing economies.
In terms of commercial products there were many on display. Agriculture was well represented, with fertilisers, pesticides, coatings to reduce fruit spoilage and even catalytic systems to remove ethylene from fruit storage facilities. Construction materials were another large area, with a wide range of building materials on display. Absent were areas such as semiconductors and medical devices, but once again their absence illustrates that INIC is focussing much more on the solutions demanded by Iranian industry rather than trying to compete with more advanced economies. There is also substantial work going n the the field of renewable energy with some large investments taking place.
Simon Brown, who also attended the exhibition, was similarly impressed, and raises questions about the proliferation of nanomaterials and whether adequate safety testing is being performed before they are deployed.
So Iranian nanotechnology seems to be in rude health. It has plenty of funding, political support at high level and most importantly, plenty of smart people involved. It is also developing stronger international links, hosting the meeting of the Asia Nano Forum and attracting exhibitors from companies and organisations based in Europe and Asia. I don’t think that Iran will be challenging the US and Germany as the best places to commercialise nanotechnologies anytime soon, but I suspect that the aim is more to support domestic industry and in that respect things seem to be working out rather well.