Corporate Watch : Newsletter 26 : 5 - THE UK NANOTECH INDUSTRY
The first generation of commercial nanotechnology companies -- those whose business is based on manufactured nanoparticles -- is already with us. Here is a quick overview of the cast of characters that make up this first wave of the nanotechnology industry in the UK.
1. Ivory tower tech-heads -- The university spin out company
As state funding for academia decreases and universities seek other ways of bringing in revenue, many are either licensing or selling the results of academic research to private companies, or are setting up their own companies to cash in on academic research discoveries. UK examples of nano spin out companies include Metal Nanopowders Ltd (University of Birmingham); Nanoco (University of Manchester); and Oxonica (University of Oxford).
Oxonica is the UK's most prominent university spin out nanotech company. It was set up to find commercial applications for nanotech research at Oxford University, and this summer became the first pure-play UK nanotech company to be floated on the stock exchange. Oxonica designs and markets its products, leaving manufacture to be done under license by other companies. Its main products are fuel additives (Envirox as used by Stagecoach buses) and sunscreen ingredients (as used by Boots).
2. Bomb making boffins -- The military industrial company
It's not just academic research in universities that is having to stand on its own two feet. So too does military research.
QinetiQ Nanomaterials is a wholly owned subsidiary of QinetiQ, the partly privatised wing of the Ministry of Defence research agency (see QinetiQ article, page 3). By cashing in on the MoDs research infrastructure and buying in key manufacturing technology, QinetiQ nanomaterials has established itself as one of Europes leading manufacturers of metal nanoparticles. Its products can be used for anything from 'energetic materials' (aka explosives), to ingredients for cosmetics, to fuel catalysts.
QinetiQs other venture into nanotechnology is its investment in Australian nanotech company pSivida who are working on medical applications of nano-stuctured Biosilicon (a technology initially developed by QinetiQ).
3. Massively tiny and extremely huge -- The chemicals company
Another major player in UK Nano plc is the chemicals industry, which, given its capacity for manufacturing bulk quantities of highly specialised chemicals, has been able to step seamlessly into the new world of making nanomaterials. Examples include UK based multinationals such as ICI/Uniqema, Elementis and Johnson Matthey, as well as smaller players like Thomas Swann and Co.
Thomas Swan and Co.
County Durham speciality chemicals company Thomas Swann and Co (in conjunction with Cambridge University), has set itself up as one of the only commercial carbon nanotube manufacturer in the UK.
4. Hardly here at all yet -- The phantom nano company
Looking through a directory of the UK nano industry reveals some companies which, on closer examination, consist of only a website, a single sales representative and a mobile phone number, and turn out to be just the UK sales office of foreign nano companies trying to make it big in the UK and Europe. Examples include JR Nanotech and Guangzhou Heji Trade Co, Ltd.
JR Nanotech was set up to market nanomaterials products made in Korea and China. The company's main business is in products with a silver nanoparticle anti-bacterial finish, anything from nano socks to nano sanitary towels to nano tupperware.
5. Serving up the nano products -- The nano deliverery company
Right at the other end of the spectrum of the nano industry from the design and manufacture of nanoparticles are the companies which market and sell nanotech based products. These companies will generally have little to do with nanotechnology but are the sharp end of how the public will encounter nanotechnology. In the UK these companies range from cosmetics companies including Boots, Green People and The Body Shop, to clothing companies like GAP, Regatta, Levis and Marks and Spencer, to glass company Pilkington.
The Boots Soltan sunscreen range contains UV filters based on nanoparticle titanium dioxide. The sunscreens are based on a product called Optisol designed by Oxonica whose active ingredient is manufactured in Belgian company Umicore