Article  | 

Nanotechnology’s dual use dilemma: benefits and threats

SHARE

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last year, the FBI brought charges against a Harvard University professor and two Chinese nationals. The alleged crime? Aiding China’s efforts to steal US nanotechnology research. This incident shows just how far governments will go in the race for research and development. But before we learn why it’s so valuable, let’s first explore its origins – the world of deep technology.

What is deep tech?

If you’re wondering exactly what deep tech is, you’re not alone. Deep technology ventures bring scientists, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs together to provide innovative solutions to complex problems, like climate change or disease, for example. 

 

Investing in deep tech is big business. In the past five years, European venture capital investments have nearly tripled in the deep tech sector. This field comprises technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and – you guessed it – nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology: the basics

Although there’s no hard and fast definition, it’s often described as science, technology and engineering on the scale of atoms and molecules. It’s hard to imagine just how tiny this scale is. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, or 0.000000001 metres. To put this into perspective, the diameter of a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometres.

 

Nanoparticles have always existed in the natural world. In fact, we’ve been using nanoscale material for centuries. For instance, some of the most spectacular stained-glass windows from medieval churches contain gold and silver nanoparticles. However, we’ve only recently begun to understand the scientific principles behind it.

The benefits

Nanotech has enormous potential to change our lives for the better, and many industries are already embracing its power. 

 

It’s used in the military to create lightweight, strong clothing materials, body armour and highly sensitive thermal sensors. It can also be used to treat injuries. Scientists have created a bandage that applies electrical pulses to a wound using electricity produced by nanogenerators.

 

Nanotech gives us the opportunity to treat disease without damaging healthy cells in the body, making it useful in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. Some examples of this are an origami nanorobot that specifically targets cancer cells, and a hitchhiking nanoparticle which delivers drugs directly to diseased cells. There’s no doubt that nanotechnology offers huge benefits to society. However, there is a dark side associated with this new technology.

The drawbacks

The thing is, different rules apply at the nanoscale – and this could seriously impact our health. Nanoparticles are highly reactive and don’t always behave in the same way as their larger counterparts. We don’t know what chemical reactions could be triggered at such tiny scales, and these materials could potentially become more toxic.

 

Their size and mobility make it easier for humans to ingest, and our immune systems may not be able to recognise them and respond. On top of that, nanoparticles could damage the environment. So as it stands, relatively little is known about nanotech, and this is cause for concern. But there’s another issue. What about when nanotech is used with malicious intent?

The dual-use dilemma

Unfortunately, the same technology that can create life-saving medicine can also create deadly pharmaceuticals. Even in the military, nanotech has offensive and defensive purposes. Nanotech’s dual use makes things complicated. On the one hand, there’s huge opportunity for positive change, but on the other, there are very real dangers associated with it.

 

The weaponisation of toxic substances is a real concern. In the case of anthrax, nanotubes could be used to deliver just the lethal parts of the virus, without the protein that our immune system can recognise. Lethal organisms will also be easier to conceal and transport, like in aerosol form, for example.

 

Policies are crucial to prevent the misuse of nanotech, but this is tricky to do without hindering innovation. Unsurprisingly, governments don’t want to restrict economic or societal benefits. But of course, it’s not just governments who want to get ahead of the nanotech curve. Companies are also keen to invest in deep tech and harness it to create consumer-friendly products.

How nanotech is developed: from the science lab to supermarket shelves

This commercialisation of ideas is known as technology transfer. Innovative ideas move from non-commercial settings to another organisation, to be used to create a product or service. Some technology transfer examples include sunscreens, crack-resistant paint and scratch-proof spectacle lenses.  

 

Technology is typically transferred through a licensing agreement. In fact, studies have shown that licensing technology is currently at an all-time high. In a tech licensing agreement, the holder of the intellectual property grants another party the rights to use their technology to create new products. So how does this work? There are a number of different methods:

Scientific entrepreneurship and start-ups

Scientific entrepreneurship is a way in which scientists and engineers can commercialise their new, innovative ideas by delving into the world of business themselves. Business-savvy scientists can take the leap between research and industry and found a start-up with the backing of private investors or companies.

Lean Launchpad as a strategy

This can be challenging, especially if it’s your first foray into the business world. Methods such as the Lean Launchpad can be a great way to test your business model and ensure it’s feasible. This approach is taught in universities all over the world, but is also favoured by companies, start-ups and researchers who want to test their ideas.

Corporate innovation and spin-offs

So how do companies keep up? Again, they can license technology or develop their own in-house. For example, many companies have dedicated innovation teams that work closely with start-ups. With corporate innovation, businesses experiment with new technologies and strategies to make its business model more competitive. To learn more about this, click here.

 

Instead of launching a start-up and beginning from scratch, oftentimes companies will create a spin-off. This is a separate entity from their own company, and is perfect for sharpening the business’ focus – so each company can play to its own strengths.

The takeaways

Nanotechnology is sure to transform our lives in so many ways, and there’s huge potential for improved healthcare, security and sustainability. However, its dual use is a real dilemma which can’t be ignored. Nanotech is developing faster than the policies that can regulate it. One thing is certain: more research is needed to better understand deep tech’s latest offering.  

 

The Collider: pioneering a better future

The aim of The Collider is to provide a space where researchers, founders and investors can connect with entrepreneurial talent, tech-transfer initiatives and technology. The tech-focused initiative designed to fuel digital transformation worldwide, Mobile World Capital Barcelona, powers The Collider.