International Policy Collaboration -- Nanotechnology: An Overview Based on Indicators and Statistics -- Summary

In June 2009, under the supervision of the OECD Working Party on Nanotechnology (WPN), the OECD released a report detailing the potential socioeconomic impacts of nanotechnology. The report also discussed recent trends in research and development (R&D) investment and application areas, as well as in business challenges and activities, which relate to nanotechnology innovation and commercialization1.

Reliable assessments of nanotechnology development and its potential impact suffer from the lack of agreed upon definitions of nanotechnology and its measurement methodologies. This, in turn, has hampered data collection and analysis as well as the construction of reliable indicators and statistics. While the report acknowledges the need for further work on nanotechnology metrics and its existing data limitations, it draws on available statistics, indicators and other sources in order to provide a useful overview of emerging developments related to nanotechnology innovation and commercialization and to support a more informed policy discussion. The following observations are highlighted in the report. Please note that they do not take into account the potential effects of the economic downturn which began in 2008.

What are the Potential Socio-Economic Impacts of Nanotechnology?

  • Markets -- Potential socio-economic impacts are expected to be significant in terms of forecasted market size for nanotechnology-related products, multiplicity of applications and the potential for contribution to addressing global challenges (for example, energy constraints, climate change, affordable health care and global access to clean water). Available forecasts are, however, only indicative and technology roadmaps can be difficult to undertake due to the broadness of the field.
  • Companies -- Given the ongoing difficulties in defining a nanotechnology company, company count may be unreliable. Available data suggest that the United States is home to the majority of "nanotechnology companies". However, studies also identify a relatively large number of companies in other countries, which include Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada.
  • Products -- The United States also appears to dominate in terms of the number of nanotechnology-related products. Available data suggest that products are currently concentrated in consumer goods industries, particularly in cosmetics, clothing, personal care and sporting equipment. However, these types of products may be publicly registered more frequently than, for example, business-to-business products.
  • Employment -- Early forecasts suggest that there may be as many as 2 million new nanotechnology-related jobs created globally by 2015. Although starting from a very low level, one study reported a significant growth in the number of job-related advertisements in 2005–2006. If future demand for nanotechnology-related jobs grows rapidly, this could constitute a challenge for further development of the field.

Trends in R&D, Publications and Patenting

  • Public-Sector Investment -- Data suggests that nanotechnology has benefited from rapidly increasing public R&Dinvestment over a relatively short period of time. In terms of total investments, the United States, the European Union and Japan are the primary locations for nanotechnology R&D. However, when looking at investments on a per capita basis, some smaller countries are also prominent, including Ireland, Israel, Taiwan, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Finland and Australia. Estimates taken prior to the economic crisis suggest that R&D investments will increase from 2008–2010 in most countries.
  • Private-Sector Investment -- 2006 data on private-sector investments which were compiled by the European Commission indicate that the United States and Japan have a higher percentage of total R&D, originating from the private sector (54 percent and 63 percent, respectively) when compared to the European Union (33 percent).
  • Publications -- As it is often the case in emerging technologies, the number of publications exceeds the number of patents by far. This observation also holds for nanotechnology. Furthermore, in recent years, the rate of the growth of nanotechnology-related publications and patents clearly exceeds that of publications and patents more generally.

    Publication activity is dominated by the United States, Japan and the large countries of the European Union where R&D investments are largely located (around 51 percent of total publications identified). However, the number of Chinese publications has grown rapidly in recent years, including several highly cited publications. Other "newcomer" countries, such as Korea, India, Taiwan, and Singapore, show impressive growth rates, although from low starting levels. Publications indicate a broad range of disciplines, including materials science, applied/condensed matter physics, polymer science, chemistry, pharmacology and biochemistry.

  • Patents --The United States has an evident lead in nanotechnology patenting, with a few states accounting for a significant share (led by California, Massachusetts and New York). France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and Korea follow. It is estimated that patenting activity began to accelerate approximately 12–13 years after key enabling inventions were made in instrumentation (for example, similar to patenting trends observed in biotechnology).

    Nanotechnology patents are characterized by an above-average share of citations to scientific literature, highlighting the science-oriented nature of developments to date.

Patenting -- Application Areas and Institutional Involvement

  • Most patenting appears to occur in nanomaterials and nanoelectronics. Nanomaterials enable applications in a broad range of fields while nanoelectronics are confined mainly to electronics, machinery and consumer goods applications.
  • Nanotechnology patenting in the fields of electronics, chemicals and instruments has grown the most while sub-fields with above-average growth rates include machines and tools, materials and metallurgy, materials processing, information technology and semiconductors.
  • While a majority of nanotechnology patents are assigned to companies, universities tend to be frequent patent owners in comparison to university ownership in patenting more generally. This suggests that technology transfer to companies may be a key issue in the commercialization of nanotechnology.
  • The ranking of assignees of nanotechnology patents is largely dominated by multinational enterprises located in the United States, Japan and Europe; many of which are major players in the electronics industry. However, a few smaller European companies also rank high, along with several American and Japanese universities and public research institutes.

How are Countries Specializing Across Application Fields?

  • Countries are positioning themselves in nanotechnology and its application fields in different ways, in part reflecting their overall patterns of specialization. Most of the countries covered by patent data are involved in multiple nanotechnology areas.
  • Patent data suggests that countries tend to patent more strongly either in electronics or in chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Only a few countries are diversified across all application fields.
  • The United States and the European Union are relatively more diversified across the main nanotechnology application fields. Japan has a higher degree of specialization in electronics and the BRICcountries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Furthermore, both the European Union and Japan are specializing in application fields where there has been lesser overall specialization in the past. In contrast, the diversified profile of the United States in nanotechnology applications is compatible with its broader overall specialization pattern.
  • Electronics appears to be a nanotechnology application field in which most countries have previous strengths. Nanotechnology is enabling diversification beyond fields of previous specialization into the application fields of instruments, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotechnologies.

Some Insights into Business Activities and Commercialization Challenges

  • Small/Large Companies -- Company surveys in a few countries have identified a relatively large number of small companies involved in nanotechnology. The surveys, however, suggest that the larger companies may be better placed to manage nanotechnology developments due to their critical mass in R&D, production and marketing.
  • Company Specialization -- The companies surveyed are distributed across a broad range of manufacturing industries, reflecting the general purpose nature of nanotechnology. In terms of nanotechnology sub-areas, the majority of companies are involved in nanomaterials, nanobiotechnology or nanoelectronics.
  • Opportunities and Challenges -- Nanotechnology is considered to both enhance competitiveness in traditional markets and to create new markets.
  • Company Trends --The surveys point to an increasing number of companies involved in nanotechnology over time as well as the growth of R&D investments and the demand for nanotechnology workers. The surveys indicate the difficulties that companies have in recruiting personnel who possess the required skills. The majority of companies surveyed expect commercialization of their R&D within the next 2 to 3 years.
  • Challenges for Commercialization -- All of the surveys highlight the commercialization challenges companies may have, although it is not always clear whether these challenges are unique to nanotechnology. High processing costs, problems in the scalability of R&D towards prototypes and industrial production, the basic research orientation of the field and concerns about health and safety issues (especially public perceptions of these issues) have emerged as key challenges. High investment costs and lack of funding are also highlighted in the survey.
  • While company surveys provide valuable insights, further qualitative analysis of company challenges is important, particularly with regards to commercialization. Company challenges may also differ significantly according to company size, nanotechnology sub-area and application field.

1 OECD (2009), "Nanotechnology: An Overview Based on Indicators and Statistics". OECD Science, Technology, and Industry Working Papers 2009/7, Directorate for Science, Technology, and Industry, OECD, Paris. The report was prepared by Christopher Palmberg, Hélène Dernis, and Claire Miguet of the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry (STI). Additional comments were made by Jacqueline Allan and Dirk Pilat of the OECD and delegates of the Working Party on Nanotechnology.