The Georgia Institute of Technology ranks third in the nation for the number of nanotechnology researchers that are “highly cited” in peer-reviewed publications, and in the top ten for the number of first authors publishing in such journals. Overall, Georgia Tech is among the nation’s top 25 institutions for National Science Foundation (NSF) nanotechnology research support, and leads the South in such key indicators as the number of nanotechnology doctoral dissertations and nanotechnology prize winners.
The statistics are contained in “Connecting the Dots: Creating a Southern Nanotechnology Network,” a study done through the Program in Science, Technology and Innovation Policy – a joint initiative of the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute and the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy – for the Southern Growth Policies Board. Published in April 2006, the study evaluated the South’s competitive position in the budding nanotechnology industry. The study’s research team evaluated five factors in nanotechnology – human capital, knowledge generation, research and development funding, patents and commercialization – for the period 1995-2004.
“Traditionally, the South hasn’t been viewed as having strengths in nanotechnology research, but in this study we show that there is a substantial amount going on here,” said Jan Youtie, one of the study’s co-authors and a principal research associate in the Enterprise Innovation Institute “The big strengths are that 20 percent of all nanotechnology research publications in the United States come from the Southern region, and that four of the top 25 institutions in nanotechnology funding support are in this region.”
In addition to Georgia Tech, the other three top-25 institutions from the region are Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University. Though the collaboration between Georgia Tech and Emory University has won large federal grants for studying nanotechnology in the life sciences, those awards came after the report’s study period, noted Youtie, who is also an adjunct associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy.
Sponsored by the Technology Transfer and Economic Development Directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the study examined nanotechnology activity in 13 states – plus Puerto Rico – served by the Southern Grown Policies Board, a public policy think-tank. Texas and Florida, two significant players in nanotechnology, are not part of the Board’s regional focus and so were not included in the study.
Within the South, the study reported that the state of Georgia ranks:
- First in the number of nanotechnology prize winners;
- Second in the number of nanotechnology publications;
- Second in the number of highly cited primary researchers;
- Second in the number of doctoral dissertations;
- Third in the dollar value of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards in nanotechnology areas;
- Third in the number of nanotechnology patents;
- Fourth in the dollar amount of nanotechnology-related grants from the National Science Foundation.
One of Georgia Tech’s strengths is its connections to other national and international nanotechnology research institutions. “Part of the reason that Georgia Tech has a leading position in the South is that we have a lot of researchers who are networked outside their departments to researchers elsewhere,” Youtie explained. “This is a strength because many research advances occur by cross-fertilization with other departments and disciplines.”
Though Georgia has strengths in nanotechnology research and development, it faces significant weakness in patents and the commercialization of technology, both key elements needed for a robust nanotechnology industrial community. That’s also true for other Southern states – and in other technologies, notes Philip Shapira, another co-author and a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy.
“We have growing research capabilities, but the real issue is whether we have the commercialization capabilities,” he noted.
Though Georgia has invested in developing startup companies, it’s not yet clear what role early-stage companies will play in turning nanotechnology innovations into commercial products.
“Nanotechnology is very pervasive across industry because it facilitates improvement in a broad range of products and processes,” Shapira said. “For example, we are seeing nanoparticles and nanofibers being introduced as parts of tires, microelectronics, clothing and biomedicine. These industries are dominated by big companies, so this may be an area where big companies have a more important role to play than startups.”
Because the nanotechnology industry is young and will likely advance through several distinct growth phases, state efforts to gain leadership still have time to pay off, Shapira says. To take advantage of the nanotechnology revolution, he adds, Georgia will not only have to attract more venture capital for startups, but also develop linkages with well-funded companies that have the resources to bring new products to market.
“None of these are easy or automatic, but they are areas that we have to push,” he said. “I think there is a window during which Georgia could emerge as a bigger player in nanotechnology commercialization if we can develop strategic policy action, as well as leadership on the business side.”
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