The European Nanoworld, Under a Magnifying Glass

According to a Norse mythology (as related by Snorri Sturluson in the Edda-saga), the gods had to rely on the dwarfs--the "nanos," in Greek--and their expertise in technology to smith tools and defend the court against the intrusion of the Giants. There's nothing dwarfish about today's nanotechnology industries, yet even some of today's industrial giants are turning to nano[technologist]s to strengthen their industrial and economic competitiveness.

Nanotechnology involves the measurement, design, building, and tailoring of nanoparticles and nanostructures to meet a variety of needs. Applications in R&D have been expanding fast and can now be found in many industrial sectors, including material science, electronics, chemistry, and biotech. Nanotechnology is used for industrial purposes and in consumer goods.

As the market potential of nanotechnology increases, new job opportunities open for scientists. A study on nanotech published recently by the German Association of Engineers estimated that about 10,000 new nanotech-related jobs would be created between 2003 and 2006 in Germany alone, a trend that is likely to continue.

Nanotech Industrial Research in Europe: Let's Look at a Few Companies …

Nanomaterials have many interesting new physical and chemical properties that need to be studied, understood, evaluated for their commercial potential, and then commercialised. These tasks, to a various extent, are the work of nanotech companies.

Omicron Nanotechnologies
Omicron Nanotechnologies is a company with 170 employees, based near Wiesbaden in Germany, which develops instruments to give research labs the means to measure nanoparticles and nanostructures for analytical purposes and to build nanostructures for research purposes. For Omicron's employees, this means finding solutions to technical challenges that are both complex and interesting. "Today, our customers request new equipment, which they need to do research tomorrow; this means that we are always working at the technical and scientific limits," says physicist Thomas Berghaus, R&D and Operations Manager at Omicron Nanotechnologies.

Omicron's projects require expertise in mechanics, software, electronics, instrument design, and physics. For new instruments, feasibility studies are usually performed before prototypes are built by doing theoretical calculations and simulations. Projects are taken on by multidisciplinary teams made up of scientists with a range of expertise. Many of the company's R&D staff have done a Ph.D. where they already have developed an instrument on their own.

Nanoledge, a production company based in Montpellier, France, is dedicated to carbon nanotube research. Currently, nanotubes are used by research labs developing composite materials, as well as by companies that produce composite materials. One important aspect of Nanoledge's work is the development of working procedures in the lab for the handling of nanoparticles to minimise health risks.

ItN Nanovation
ItN Nanovation is a 62-employee company based in Saarbrucken in Germany, which specialises in researching and producing nanoparticles for use in ceramics production. According to Ralph Nonninger, Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder of ItN Nanovation and chemist by training, for the development of a single product, about 10% of the company's activities and resources will be invested on the R&D, and 90 percent on the scaling-up and reproduction.

Oxonica is a nanotech research company with a staff of 37 near Oxford, United Kingdom, that specialises in the applications of nanoparticles in the fields of energy and health. Cooperation with the local university is important for Oxonica, says Gareth Wakefield, Oxonica Vice-President Research, Co-founder, and a physicist by training, as the company uses some of the university equipment for the characterisation of the nanoparticles.

Jonathan Stott, a material scientist now working on developing new technology at Oxonica, thinks that the learning process within a company is quicker than in university because the scope of research in industry is narrower. But in a company, he adds, one has to be more self-reliant. Stott enjoys the intensive learning and the many interactions a company lab offers with customers and collaborators.

What do Nanotech Employers Want?

When recruiting, these nanotech companies say, they seek M.Sc. and Ph.D. graduates, as well as postdocs, in chemistry, physics, and material sciences for positions in research, development, and technology. "At present, there are many qualified candidates in the job market, but a shortage is expected within the next 10 years," says Kai Schierholz, a former polymer chemist now Chief Scientific Officer at Nanoledge.

Employers highlight the need for new recruits to have a good understanding of the neighbouring science fields, as most often they will need to work in interaction with colleagues and with customers, who themselves are often scientists. These employers stress, however, that it is not absolutely necessary to have worked in nanotech previously.

Young R&D scientists need to have presentation skills, according to Wakefield, of Oxonica. Omicron's Berghaus adds that employees need self-confidence. Both of these qualities are necessary to enable scientists to defend their ideas within the team, and to sell them to customers.

Job opportunities in nanotech industry and public institutions can be found on the Web site of the European Nanotech Network. A general word of caution, however--presently, the label "nano" is popular, so every candidate should check how much nanotech a company is really doing.

The Working Culture of Nanotech Companies

The Role of Scientists
There is often more to a job in a nanotech company than ordinary R&D work. Olaf Binkle, Head of R&D at ItN Nanovation, encourages staff to provide new ideas in the set-up of the R&D lab infrastructure. This is important because nanotech companies tend to be young and not only the industry but the field of nanotechnology is still in development. In some cases, as Stott of Oxonica says, scientists spend a lot of their working time reading patents and publications, with the aim of generating new ideas for research. Nanotech scientists also play an important role in commercialising scientific knowledge, scaling up production, and meeting the other challenges that must be met before a product can be successfully marketed and sold.

Being Responsible
Because nanotech is such a new field, its uses and applications are often ahead of regulations, and this calls for responsibility among the staff, toward both the company and the society as a whole. Working standards and procedures are often defined within the companies themselves, and many chief officers consider it especially important for staff to discuss them openly with colleagues.

Open Communication
Open communication is a theme that comes up often when asking interviewees to describe their working culture. Because nanotech often relies on multidisciplinary teams, there is a need for mutual understanding and unbiased discussions between scientists from the different disciplines. This is especially important in brainstorming session when the aim is to come up with innovative ideas.

Another reason that the notion of openness comes up a lot in these discussions, says Binkle of ItN Nanovation, is that in these companies conflicts often arise in interactions between the R&D and sales departments. R&D staff aspire to perfection in each of their innovations, which delays the commercialisation process. Sales personnel, meanwhile, tend to promise customers more than is technically feasible, which puts pressure on the R&D staff. Here again mutual understanding and open communication are crucial for successful innovation and the expansion of nanotech companies.

As in any other industrial R&D sector, competition among companies means that, even as openness is crucial within companies, confidentiality is crucial between them. "We cultivate a culture of open communication within the company and discretion to the outside world," says Binkle. "If we enter into deeper discussions with the customer, we send more senior staff to the customer." Markus Maier, Product Manager at Omicron Nanotechnologies, adds that in his company the release of information is controlled very closely to prevent critical information from leaking into the outside world and to potential competitors.

The Size of Nanotech Companies

Currently the majority of core-nanotech companies are of small or medium size, which means that there are usually fewer politics than in big companies. There are also many start-ups. "The decision to work for one company is also a decision for which work culture one opts," says Wakefield of Oxonica. The start-ups are more dynamic, there is also a direct contact to the hierarchy and good customer interaction at an early-career stage compared to large companies. However, there are also more risks in early-stage companies.

Industry versus Academia

Compared to academic research, private labs need to commercialise research results as rapidly as possible; therefore, research is focused on promising tracks for commercialisation. "[Industrial] research needs to start the development of products and solutions using less data than academia," says Binkle. Hence, once a research track is found, the effort is focused on the reproduction and up-scalability of the results rather than on an understanding of the system.

Because the industry has to be more product-and-market oriented, most projects tend to be short-term. As Thibaut Vaugien, Technology Project Manager at Nanoledge, sees it, this keeps the motivation high. Another factor that may encourage scientists to perform well--a factor that isn't usually to be found within academia--is the yearly evaluation of performance, upon which both promotion and annual bonuses may depend. Another difference in the way of working is that there are many tasks and deadlines to juggle in industry, whereas in academia tasks are often processed sequentially, according to Maier of Omicron.

Unlike the dwarves of the Edda saga, today's nanotechnology industry has a great deal of growth potential. But just like the mythical Nanos, today's nanotechnologies are likely to be instrumental in developing nanotechnology and strengthening industrial competitiveness.

The author is a consultant in industrial R&D based in Europe, who writes under the pen name Albert Michels.

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