The Hype That Came Back to Bite

I received an email from the US NanoBusiness Alliance (yes they are still limping along) appealing for data on jobs created by nanotechnologies, a clear case of the hype that came back to bite.

We Need Your Jobs Data

During the Public Policy Tour, we received an assignment from Senator Wyden, Tom Kalil, and several other champions of nanotechnology: in order to make the best case for nanotechnology that they can, they need jobs information from you.  Nanotechnology businesses are among the few that are hiring, and our champions want to be able to show this.  We also need anecdotes that Senators and Members of Congress can use to personalize the data – specific instances in which you are hiring people, and the impact that you are having in your communities. In the days ahead, we will be asking you to participate in a survey that will help provide this important information.

There is an an obvious need to build a case for the Senators showing that nanotechnology has created jobs, but has it? Well if you take the preferred measure of the NanoBusiness Alliance, the “Nanotechnology Industry” then i rather suspect that the number of sustainable jobs created will be under a thousand, as most “nanotech companies” seem to subsist on SBIR and DARPA grants without showing any signs of real growth.

However if we want to look at the number of jobs created by nanotechnologies then it;s a different story – GMR and the associated precision manufacturing using focused ion beams which is used in hard disks enabled the iPod, which enable a whole new industry! The same is true in composites, pharmeceuticals, textiles and many other industry sectors, but the thing the Senators were promised by the NBA was a “nanotechnology industry.”

As far back as 2002 the NBA was getting its wrists slapped for coming with with stupid and naive predictions about the size of the ‘nanotechnology industry‘. As a comparison, I have added below the conclusion of an article I wrote for European Business Forum in 2003 disagreeing with the premise of their ever being a “nanotechnology industry.”

It is those stupid and naive predictions, the hype driven by a craving for attention that are now coming back to bite the NBA.  You can imagine the awkward scene:

“Ok guys, we bought in ten years ago, we gave you the cash so show us the results? How many jobs were created?”

“erm, let me send out an email and ask”

“So, just how big is the nanotechnology industry these days?

“erm, well, there were a couple of dozen nanotech companies but a few closed down, it’s the recession y’know”

“But back in 2002 you put out a report saying there were over a hundred and it would be worth $700 billion by last year”

“erm, erm…”

Well the lesson for today, ladies and gentlemen, is it doesn’t matter whether you are hyping nanotech or running a Ponzi scheme, if you can’t deliver and you stick around too long you’ll get caught out. Most of the early nanotech boosters are now boosting clean tech, or synthetic biology, or geoengineering. While not many of them have a clue what they are talking about, at least they had enough sense to skedaddle before any of the predictions came true.

The tragedy of course, is that the tens of thousands of scientists engaged in nanoscience weren’t the ones who made those silly predictions, and weren’t the ones who egged on organisations such as the NBA to come out with ever more preposterous predictions, but will be tarred with the same brush as the boosters by the politicians.

Nourishing the roots of innovation: nanotechnology is not a disruptive force in itself, but its effect on existing products will be.

Tim Harper, 2003

A major difference between almost every historically disruptive technology and nanotechnology is that there is no focal point. In previous diffusions there is a clear path of adoption and displacement–whether water with steam, vacuum tubes with transistors or transistors with integrated circuits–based on a dominant technology. Of course no technology stands alone, so the house of cards that allows integrated circuits to exist spans polymers to metrology, but there the processing of silicon is a dominant technology. That focus has allowed the semiconductor industry to be defined, and measured. There is no nanotechnology industry, and probably never will be.

While nanotechnology can act as a magnet for funding, in terms of measuring the impact of technology, it is no more a meaningful definition than that of chemistry (the science of matter; the branch of the natural sciences dealing with the composition of substances and their properties and reactions). Our understanding of chemistry has enabled many of the world’s largest industries, but it was never embraced in the 1920s by investors and the public as the next big thing.

Perhaps a better example is our understanding of quantum mechanics, initiated by the discovery of the electron in 1897. The understanding that allows us to control the movement of electrons, initially along copper wire, and later through other materials such as silicon, has affected almost every aspect of our lives. From the light bulb to the cellphone we are ruled by quantum effects, yet no one would point to the diffusion of our understanding of the quantum realm as a disruptive technology.

So how do we track the diffusion of a technology we cannot define? Put simply, we can’t. Few consumers or even businesses give too much time to how things work, as long as they do, and they work better than the previous generation, or those of their competitors. Fundamental understanding is the job of quantum physicists and now nanotechnologists.

The answer is to look beyond nanotechnology, and to look at its effect on existing technologies. The three billion dollars of government funding worldwide has been mostly pouring into academic establishments, and the increase in our understanding of the molecular scale that it is enabling is already finding commercial applications. Business can already make use of the tools developed by academic nanoscience research to gain more insight into processes we already have some control over, whether in using nanocatalysis to improve yield and boost margins at an oil refinery, or using nanofibres to sell stain resistant clothing at a premium.

We are undergoing a period of massively parallel technological development, enabled not only by nanotechnology but also by the convergence of all branches of science. While nanotechnology may be the next big thing as far as governments and scientists are concerned, the applications will be far bigger and none of them will be called nanotechnology.

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