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Swiss engage US in small talk

Switzerland is moving to stamp itself as a major player in nanotechnology


Leading Swiss scientists and businesspeople are heading to the United States to showcase Switzerland's expertise in nanotechnology.

"Many people believe nanotechnology is one of the fields in which the next technological revolution will take place. So I think it is important for Switzerland to be part of it and to be part of it early," said co-organiser Christian Simm from the Swiss science and technology office in San Francisco.

Scientists, companies and investors in the field of nanotechnology are visiting Boston, Chicago and San Jose, California from May 7 to 14.

"It is the first time that Swiss specialists in this field are coming over to the US as a group," Simm told swissinfo. "It is a demonstration of the fact that this is an important field for Switzerland and that we want to be part of the game."

Into the atomic realm

Nanotechnology describes areas of research concerned with objects which are measured in nanometres - millionths of a millimetre.

However, nanoscience is not just about miniaturising existing technologies; it also seeks to manipulate and alter the positions of individual atoms and molecules.

"To get an idea of the scale, an atom is to an apple what an apple is to the size of the Earth," said Basel physicist, Hans Güntherodt, who heads the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) in nanoscience.

When you go down to the size of atoms - the building blocks of matter - optical, electronic, magnetic and mechanical behaviour can change dramatically.

Nanoscience studies the structures and interactions which occur on this minute scale, and technology based on the nanometre is eventually expected to have an impact on every facet of society from medicine to computers.

Selling science

The Boston leg of the Swiss roadshow includes visits to laboratories and research centres of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In Chicago, the programme will focus on the commercialisation of nanotechnology.

"Switzerland is probably still lagging a little bit in the way it manages the technology transfer. That is the process of bringing an idea out of the laboratory and turning it into a product or a company," said Simm. "This is not specific to nanotechnology. It's has more to do with our cultural background."

Chicago-based David Kouidri, trade commissioner at the Swiss Business Hub USA, shares this view.

"It's imperative that we assist researchers take their work out of the laboratory and into the market," he said. "It's a critical time given the growth of the nanotechnology market. We believe that both Switzerland and the US have a lot to learn from each other."

Driving force for the economy

One highlight of the San Jose schedule is a nanotech conference where leading Swiss scientists will discuss their research strategies and predictions for the future.

Nanotechnology is expected to become a driving force in the world economy within the next ten to 20 years.

Switzerland makes more than SFr30 million ($18.5 million) available each year for research in nanotechnology and related fields - the highest per capita investment of any country, according to a Swiss Technology Consulting Group study completed last year. By comparison, the US has earmarked more than $700 million for 2003.

Internationally recognised research into nano and microtechnology is taking place at the federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne, the institute for microtechnology (IMT) at Neuchâtel university and Basel university's physics institute.

Applied research is taking place in various locations including the IBM Zurich research laboratory, the Swiss centre for electronics and microtechnology in Neuchâtel (CSEM) and the Paul Scherrer Institute, based in Villigen.

by Vincent Landon

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