Unbelievably, carbon nanotubes are already 27 years old.

Since then, this revolutionary material has been using its amazing properties of strength, flexibility, lightweight, and electro-conductivity, to change the world.

Or at least that was the plan.

Because, despite scientists and entrepreneurs being in possession of carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, and graphene for almost three decades, they have yet to make their expected impact. As researchers Dr. Marius Fischer of the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition and Assistant Professor Raphael Zingg of Waseda University, state, “The 21st century has been hailed the nano-century, and major technological breakthroughs are expected from the control of matter at the nanoscale. However, despite its promises, nanotechnology still seems to be stuck in the status of an emerging science.”

The researchers began to wonder why there was not more commercial activity for carbon nanotubes, graphene, and other nanotech products. Concerned by this fact, they decided to study the relationship between private and public funding of research into nanotechnology, to see what effect it had on nano-tech progress.

As the nanotechnology industry journal AzoNano explains, “Dr Fischer and Professor Zingg analysed the combined data on nanotechnology patents by detecting all European patent applications in relation to nanostructures from 1991 to 2016.”

The team have now published their findings in the journal Nano Today, where they found that, “Financing and supporting collaborative environments may be key for nations to foster growth in nanotechnology. In countries where private–public patents are more frequent, the total number of nanotechnology patents is higher – a trend that seems driven by powerhouses like the US, Japan, South Korea, France, and Germany, which all have an established framework for public and private entities to work hand in hand.”

Chart showing the correlation between private–public investment and the total number of patents by country. The country codes are as follows: AT (Austria), AU (Australia), BE (Belgium), BR (Brazil), CA (Canada), CH (Switzerland), CN (China), CZ (Czech Republic), DE (Germany), ES (Spain), FR (France), GB (Great Britain), IL (Israel), IT (Italy), JP (Japan), KR (Republic of Korea), NL (Netherlands), PL (Poland), SG (Singapore) and US (United States of America)

In explaining the importance of public-private partnerships, the study highlighted the success gained in French investments in nanotechnology, where it notes that, “France may serve as a poster child for how investment in collaborative environments can accelerate growth. Seeking to curve its initial lack of patent filings, France launched its Nano-Innov plan, creating clusters associating scientific research and industrial development. As a result, it appears to have built a solid network of collaborating partners, with the French National Center for Scientific Research and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission emerging as particularly prominent and prolific public partners.”

Similarly, the study also cites progress made in Israel, Singapore, and Brazil, where the countries have established themselves as ‘regional drivers in nanotechnology’ due to their above-average rates of private–public patents.

Summary of the top public patent applicants for private-public patents both by country and the number of private-public patents in which they were involved

The study also gave specific examples of where publicly-funded research given commercial backing has reaped rewards. It reports on numerous multimillion-dollar investments, such as IBM’s 2009 $90 million strategic partnership with ETH Zurich; Hitachi’s sponsorship of research towards the patented methods for synthesising carbon nanotubes in cooperation with the University of Tokyo; and the $25 million research alliance between Philips and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the area of lighting solutions technology. An arrangement which has already yielded a jointly owned portfolio of quantum dot technology patents, that were originally co-developed by MIT and Hewlett Packard.

A representation of the number of patent applications filed per year. The private applications shown are exclusively private, whereas public patents include independently filed public patents, jointly filed public-private and public-public patents

As Zingg stated in a recent interview with Waseda University, “Collaborative trends in nanotechnology are reflected in the rise of private-public partnerships. The pooling of assets, know-how, and technologies provides innovators with better ways to address the challenges of innovation technology.”

If any scientific field is to advance, it needs more than the research conducted solely in universities. Instead, industry and commercial investment must play a key role for not only expanding knowledge but in developing ways to apply theoretical know-how towards solving practical problems. This research shows that, after a slow start, the nanotechnology industry is beginning to reap the rewards of an influx in private capital. Developing improved nanotechnology practices, from carbon nanotube production, graphene applications, and the expansion of nanotechnology in raw material sourcing.

Photo credit: NanoToday, Cheaptubes, EPO, Stanford, & Telegraph