Emerging Technologies

What can nanotech do for entrepreneurs and job creation?

Javier Garcia-Martinez
Founding Curator, Madrid Hub, University of Alicante
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Future of Work

This post is part of a series examining the connections between nanotechnology and the top 10 trends facing the world, as described in the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015. All authors are members of the Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology.

Job creation is a top priority of many economies. As part of achieving this, public policies are designed to foster economic growth. Unfortunately, growth doesn’t always mean employment, as a persistent jobless growth – one of the World Economic Forum’s identified top trends for 2015 – stubbornly reminds us.

Technological advances are often blamed for shrinking the job market, as increasingly efficient and automated processes seemingly reduce employment opportunities. But the reasons behind current trends are many and complex. Indeed, while technology lowers the number of repetitive and physically intense jobs, it creates others that didn’t exist before. This is particularly true in the area of nanotechnology, an emerging technology that is already transforming our world.

Let me start by saying that nanotechnology is not about making things small, but about making things new. And where there are new things, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs. Yes, the components of nanomaterials and nano-devices are very small, but miniaturization is not the main goal. What makes this technology powerful is its ability to radically change how materials behave and are used. And that is great news for entrepreneurs, as better materials mean new business opportunities and new jobs.

I joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a postdoc the year that President George W. Bush signed the US National Nanotechnology Initiative. During that time, I worked extremely hard to publish papers that would help me find a position in academia. I couldn´t have imagined that, before leaving MIT, I would become the founder of a start-up. Today, I walk a hybrid career path, both as an entrepreneur and a professor, discovering and commercializing nanomaterials for energy applications. So, what have I learned that can be useful to other nanotech entrepreneurs?

  1. Nanotechnology can unlock the potential of materials and unleash big business opportunities. If you are attentive to the potential applications of your research, it can lead you to become an entrepreneur.
  2. First, patent your technologies, then create your business plan (think deep and hard about how your technology will create revenue), and finally build the team to make this possible.
  3. Financing nanotech ventures is not an easy task as it typically requires a lot of money and long timescales. So you may require several rounds of funding to ensure long-term success.
  4. Be aware of what others are doing. There is plenty of publicly available high-quality information about nanotechnology. Closely follow the advances in your field.
  5. Work with the best. Nanotechnology is not an easy (or a cheap) discipline. Collaboration, both in research and development (with top laboratories) and commercialization (through strategic partners) is an efficient way to accelerate your company and reduce the investment needed.

I work in the energy applications of nanotechnology, but this is a technology platform that has the potential for applications and job creation in nearly every commercial sector. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has been fertile ground for entrepreneurship, and nanotechnology adds a whole new dimension to it.

For example, thanks to the Internet of NanoThings (IoNT), the detail of information that we are beginning to capture about our world is mind-blowing. The granularity of the data we are beginning to collect through advances in nanotechnology is so fine that it seems the IoNT has the potential to turn big data into “huge data”, thanks to a range of sensors, emitters and receivers both outside and inside our bodies. The sheer number of business opportunities from combining ICT with nanotechnology in this arena are hard to grasp.

Many other large industries – such as energy, health and chemicals production and use – can also be radically transformed by nanotechnology, while improving our lives through cleaner energy sources, personalized nanomedicine and nano-engineered materials. In all of these areas, progress will undoubtedly lead to a reduction in conventional jobs, as improved processes and technologies lead to increased automation. Yet it opens the door wide to new employment roles as highly innovative products emerge. These are ripe for entrepreneurs and investors to embrace, and to create new jobs and new industries around nanoscale engineering.

In other words, nanotechnology can help us buck the trend of jobless growth. But only if the right incentives and support mechanisms are in place.

From the perspective of the entrepreneur, this means investing more in training scientists and engineers to translate their discoveries into marketable products; creating incentives that reward entrepreneurial risk-taking; removing intellectual property barriers; developing investment models that support long-term innovation; training the nanotechnology workforce; and creating an environment where responsible and societally responsive innovation is economically attractive.

Nanotechnology can also help millions to escape from the poverty trap by providing affordable health diagnoses, preventions and cures, and more targeted fertilizers and pesticides that act only when needed. Technology alone can not break the self-reinforcing mechanism that causes poverty to persist, but it already offers many ways to get more people into the workforce in countries were illness and hunger are putting many out of work. Some of these include: highly efficient nanomembranes for water cleaning and desalination, smoke-free heating devices, and very affordable paper diagnostic systems.

A note of caution here: nanotechnology can promote inequality if only a few have access to this new technology and the knowledge to master it. Education is probably the single most important tool for turning technology into an engine for opportunities for all.

Nanotechnology, as with many other technologies, helps us to increase our productivity; it requires fewer people to produce the same unit of outcome, but also increases our capacity to purchase more units of outcome. It is already helping us to make a better use of our natural resources, for example through nano-engineered catalysts, which increases our production capacity per unit of environmental impact.

In simple terms, nanotechnology helps us to be more efficient, and with that will come business opportunities. Public policies, which are currently mainly focused on fostering economic growth, should focus on providing further opportunities, less inequality and a more sustainable economic, social and environmental future. Nanotechnology is not the solution but it is, for sure, a powerful tool towards achieving this ambitious objective.

Have you read?
5 ways nanotechnology can tackle climate change
Can graphene make the world’s water clean?
Does weaker democracy mean weaker technology?

Author: Javier Garcia, Professor, University of Alicante. Member of of the Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology

Image: A Cima NanoTech employee shows a piece of SANTE Film in their lab in Singapore in this April 12, 2013 picture. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesBusinessFourth Industrial RevolutionJobs and the Future of Work
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