Developing countries wanting to be part of 'the next industrial revolution' will need to build their capacity for transforming nanotechnology research into commercial ventures, concluded a conference of nanotechnology experts in Trieste, Italy, last week.
The meeting was called by the International Centre for Science and High Technology of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (ICS-UNIDO) to discuss the role that international organisations — and ICS-UNIDO in particular — could play in helping developing nations tackle this emerging field of technology.
Rudra Pratrap, of the Indian Institute for Science, said he felt developing countries were doing enough in terms of nanotechnology research and education.
But he added that while researchers in developing countries might not need the help of international organisations to contact their counterparts in the United States, a forum of gathering entrepreneurs in the South and companies in the North would be valuable.
Terry Turney, co-chair of an Asian regional network for nanotechnology, said that unless the industrial sector is brought on board "there will be no house for the research and development that we do, no home for the inventions".
Roop Mahajan, a nanotechnology researcher from the University of Colorado, United States, pointed out that the vast majority of new employment in the United States is offered by new companies, and that many of these ventures were founded by researchers.
Mahajan is no stranger to the phenomenon. Several of his own students have created companies based on research they did in his laboratory.
The challenge for many developing countries lies in their lack of infrastructure or a tradition of partnerships between research and industry. Mahajan suggested that ICS-UNIDO undertake projects in different regions to develop a framework for successful partnership and training to address this.
In the meeting's concluding remarks, he proposed that funding agencies such as UNIDO help to obtain US$2 million a year for five years to fund a capacity-building project in the South that would give equal importance to research and entrepreneurial training.
The programme would fund two projects per region — one on education and training, and one on technology transfer and industry partnership. These projects would relate to a field of technology, such as safe drinking water or renewable energy, chosen by the region or country as key to its development.
This point — that developing countries need to prioritise their own nanotechnology needs — was also emphasised by several participants at the meeting.
Nanotechnology offers a range of potential applications, from water filters to refrigeration and drug delivery systems.
Some could be more relevant for certain nations: Bangladesh, for instance, might focus on applications addressing its widespread problem of arsenic-contaminated drinking water.
In addition, the potential number of applications is so huge that many countries will not be able to develop them all to a competitive level.
The selective approach is one that Argentina has already adopted, according to Alberto Lamagna of the National Atomic Energy Commission in Argentina. Lamagna said that his country's approach was to focus funding and research and development capacity on a few applications, in order to become leading players.
Neerish Revaprasadu of the University of Zululand in South Africa said that government, industry and academia in his country were all trying to determine which applications to focus on. "Generally," he said, "we want to work in an area like water purification where people will see the benefit."
Speaking to SciDev.Net, Luisa Mestroni, managing director of ICS-UNIDO, said that developing nations needed to organise national consultations to choose their focus areas in nanotechnology. They could then put the results to her organisation, which could help them approach international organisations.
Read more about nanotechnology in SciDev.Net's Nanotechnology quick guide