Ireland must continue to intensely compete in one of the 'hottest' research areas across the globe


NANOTECH; OPINION:Debate is needed but perhaps our vision should be that Ireland is the very best place to commercially exploit nano- technology, writes CHRIS HORN

NANOTECHNOLOGY IS driving global innovation in a broad range of industry sectors. It is, for example, now a key catalyst for the semiconductor industry. In 1970 a silicon chip typically had about 200 individual transistors. Some chips today are similar in physical dimensions to those of almost 40 years ago, but now have two billion - or even more - transistors, and with each transistor costing much less than a single grain of rice. Nanotechnology enables this dense miniaturisation by exquisite control over materials at the atomic scale.

Nanotechnology enables our current generation of laptops, mobile phones and computers. The same knowledge which enables such precise control of semiconductor materials is also enabling the development of new medical devices, diagnostic sensors and even drug delivery mechanisms. Worldwide, the market for nanotechnology is currently €169 billion per annum. It has been estimated to grow to €2,000 billion by 2015.

Comparative to its size, Ireland has already placed a large bet on nanoscience research. Nanoscience represents the largest single portfolio investment for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and also a significant investment for the Higher Education Authority (HSE). This strategy has resulted in the development of the Crann Institute in Dublin, devoted entirely to nanoscience; the inclusion of nanoscience as a major component of the research mission at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork; and the creation of a national nanoscience academic consortium, Inspire, which brings together leading researchers on an all-island basis. The results of this public investment and research strategy are indeed impressive: Ireland is currently ranked sixth globally for the quality of its nanoscience research, among 35 other countries which have their own nanotechnology R&D activities.

Nanotechnology has become important across the ICT, medical device and pharmaceutical sectors. In these three sectors, Ireland has well over 500 companies, employing 150,000 people. At present it is estimated that 10 per cent, about €15 billion, of our annual exports are associated with nanotechnology. A cross-sectoral industry group, the Competence Centre for Applied Nanotechnology (CCAN) is now the interconnection between industry and the academic community, and with industry defining the deliverables. The successful integration of academic research with industry requirements is absolutely critical.

Will Ireland ever be viewed as a global location of choice for nanotechnology-focused investment? Last year €5.4 billion was invested globally in nanotechnology research across academia and industry. While Ireland may be sixth in position for the quality of its nanoscience research, Ireland must continue to intensely compete in one of the "hottest" research areas across the globe. We must continue to urgently improve our cohesion and positioning, from academia to industry, and from Government agency to Government agency.

There should be a powerful high-level vision for Irish-based nanoscience. Debate is needed but perhaps our vision should be that Ireland is the very best place to commercially exploit nanotechnology. Once decided, each policy action we consider should be measured against its effectiveness at achieving our vision. That vision should be coherently and cogently articulated both at home and abroad to attract and retain credibility, and to provide confidence to industry.

We need to entice further foreign direct investment in nanotechnology. We must entice those Irish innovators and entrepreneurs who are interested in nanotechnology opportunities to stay in Ireland, and galvanize their ventures to create jobs and wealth here rather than alternative locations overseas. We also need to attract overseas innovators and entrepreneurs in nanotechnology worldwide to come to Ireland to undertake their ventures, and so create further jobs and wealth in Ireland. We need to continue to push Ireland higher in the world rankings for nanoscience research. We should encourage cross-sectoral, inter-disciplinary collaboration across the range of industries which we are fortunate to have in Ireland. We need our education system to dramatically yield many more young school leavers skilled in analysis, mathematics and enquiry.

We need not just the pure finance that comes from seed and venture capital, but the high quality of global experience and business networks that comes with top-tier international funds. We need to continue to offer attractive capital grant structures and innovative taxation policies.

We should consider infrastructure investments that could be shared across industry and companies operating in Ireland, giving them all a competitive edge over other locations. We should encourage using Ireland as a trial market for innovative products and services.

Ireland has already invested considerably in nanoscience research. But we should never forget that capital is mobile. Smart people can move to wherever they believe they will have the best chance of success - recognition as a top scientist, or wealth creation as an innovator and entrepreneur. Money will be invested where there is the best chance of high returns. Multinationals will operate where they have best opportunity to overcome their competitors. We need to keep investing in nanoscience but we also need to considerably "up our game" if we are not to dissipate our considerable investments and admirable results so far.