Nanotechnology in North Carolina: How N.C. became a nanobiotech hub

The nanotechnology industry mapped out across the United States is full of bubbles — the good kind.

“Nano-metros” identified and mapped by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, or PEN, depicts the nation’s nanotechnology hubs as bubbles. The larger the industry in a given region, the larger the bubble on the map.

Silicon Valley, Boston and Houston are the nation’s top three nanotechnology hubs. Silicon Valley and Boston have nanotech companies in various industries, including medicine. Houston excels in energy applications. Raleigh, North Carolina broke into PEN’s top ranks in 2009 and is still climbing. The Research Triangle is knocking on the door of the top nanotech hubs with the opportunity to emerge in nanobiotechnology.


“I don’t think we’re far behind No. 3,” said Jim Roberts, director of business development for the Durham, North Carolina-based Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology (COIN). “We stand out in nanobio. I don’t think we’ll catch Silicon Valley or Boston, but we could surpass Houston.”

Nanobiotechnology is the convergence of nanotechnology and life sciences. Applications include therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices. North Carolina owes its nanotechnology emergence largely to the same factors that nurtured Research Triangle Park and the surrounding region: a fortuitous concentration and cooperation of business, government and academia. With the pharmaceutical industry established as one of the Triangle’s cornerstones, nanotechnology took root with innovation focused particularly on medical applications.

Much of nanobio’s North Carolina growth has happened in the past five years as companies emerged focused on various nanotechnology efforts that have life sciences applications. Of the estimated 300 U.S.-based nanobio companies in operation, COIN counts at least 40 in North Carolina.

Morrisville, North Carolina-based Liquidia Technologies, for example, has developed a proprietary process to manufacture nanoparticles for targeted vaccine delivery. Since its 2004 founding, the company has gone on to raise nearly $60 million in equity financing, including a $10 million investment earlier this year from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the last decade, the nanotechnology industry has seen significant U.S. and global growth. Nanotechnology products in 2004 represented nearly $18.8 billion in total global revenue, according to Lux Research. That figure is projected to eclipse $2.4 trillion in 2015. The firm does not have specific data on nanobiotechnology. Lux analyst Ross Kozarsky said that the technology has become so commonplace that it is difficult to track nanobio as a specific market. But the firm does project that nano-enabled drug delivery will grow from a market size of $6.8 billion in 2010 to $21.1 billion in 2015.

North Carolina has bested its rival nanotech hubs in one respect. The state was selected to host the annual Commercialization of Micro-Nano Systems conference (COMS), the international conference for MANCEF, a global nanotech association. This year’s COMS conference will be held in Greensboro from Aug. 28 through Aug. 31. Among the cities Greensboro beat out to host COMS: Houston.

In part as a reflection of the nanobiotech industry in North Carolina, COMS this year will incorporate more nanobio components, Roberts said. The biggest nanotech component is the conference’s location. Greensboro was chosen to showcase the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a new program launched through a partnership between UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T University, and supported by a $58 million state grant. Fewer than 10 schools in the United States offer graduate programs in nanotechnology. The Joint School is also expected to spin off more nanotech companies from technologies developed there, which means North Carolina’s nanotechnology bubble is about to get bigger.

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