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More cash for nano-technology

Government funding has helped VHF to bring nano-tech to market (VHF Technologies)

The Swiss government has given a further SFr10 million in funding to a programme aimed at encouraging research and development in nano-technology.

The Top Nano 21 programme, an initiative that began three years ago, has helped more than 200 projects get off the ground in Switzerland and abroad.

The initiative – which brings together Swiss researchers from university and industry – has produced promising results, especially in the fields of alternative energy sources, new materials and coatings.

The Swiss government’s Commission for Technology and Information (KTIStartup) has given a total of SFr70 million to the project thus far.

Mid-sized firms, as well as a number of large Swiss firms, such as Sulzer Innotec, Unaxis and Nestlé, are participating in the project.

Big Surprise

“The biggest surprise has been the response from the SMEs [small and mid sized firms]. They are quicker to see the potential than large firms,” said Karl Höhener, of TEMAS, a company that manages the Top Nano projects.

Top Nano 21, which runs for one more year, has helped fund more than a half a dozen startups. One such company, VHF Technologies, has become one of the first worldwide firms to produce innovative, solar cells on plastic in relatively high volumes.

Another, HT Ceramix Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Solutions, is using its funding to further develop its fuel cell technology.

More than a half dozen startups have emerged in order to commercialize a breakthrough or innovation enabled by the program, including Nanofeel (Carrouges), Concentris (Basel), Nanolight International (British Virgin Island), Mecartex (Losone), and Nanosurf (Basel).

Foreign firms

Not all of the research results go to Swiss spinoff companies. Foreign firms are also participating, including BioCure (Norcross, Georgia), a spinoff of Ciba Vision has licensed nanocapsule container technology from the team of University of Basel researcher, Professor Wolfgang Meier.

“For those who think nanotechnology is four or ten years away from commercialization, this programme should be an eye-opener,” says Berndt Samsinger, a venture capital fund manager from Capital Stage in Zürich.

Höhener is actively promoting to Swiss industry the benefits and potential of nanotechnology research. This kind of evangelism is built into the guidelines of the program. It is meant to ensure that much of what is developed at the university is turned over to industry, either to SME firms or to startups.

The notion that research should result in market ready products is still fairly radical in the scientific community, but it is one that has its strong supporters here.

“Professors should not be paid for what they do but what they make,” said Heinrich Rohrer, the Nobel prizewinning co-inventor of the scanning tunneling microscope, in a recent newspaper interview.

Top Nano21 is also funding a marketing team at the University of St Gallen, called nanomarketing, to help startups figure out how to commercialize their innovations.

Behind this very commercial approach to research lies the notion the Swiss do not want to miss a good opportunity for growth. There are a number of people who believe that if industry and government had been more attuned when key technologies were invented here in the past, such as liquid crystal display techniques (Roche/ABB), the world wide web (CERN) and the scanning tunneling microscope (IBM Rüschlikon) that made nanoscience possible 20 odd years ago, could have benefited the economy here more than they have done to date.

by Valerie Thompson

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