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North Carolina nanotechnology: the big future of working small

North Carolina’s nanotechnology presence doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of the country’s biggest nanotech hubs, a skeptic of the industry recently told me. In a way, he’s right, at least right now. Nanotechnology has found a comfortable home in manufacturing and industrial applications that were developed primarily at tech hubs in other parts […]

North Carolina’s nanotechnology presence doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of the country’s biggest nanotech hubs, a skeptic of the industry recently told me.

In a way, he’s right, at least right now. Nanotechnology has found a comfortable home in manufacturing and industrial applications that were developed primarily at tech hubs in other parts of the country. But the biggest growth potential for nanotechnology is expected to come from healthcare and life sciences. The strong presence of that industry in North Carolina and the Research Triangle in particular, means that the Tar Heel state should reap major benefits as companies continue to develop nanotechnology into new medicines and breakthrough medical devices.

The North Carolina Nanotechnology Commercialization Conference was held this week at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. The conference is an annual event sponsored by the state Department of Commerce (and for those wondering if taxpayers paid for a nanotech gathering while the state tackles fiscal troubles, put your worries aside. The entire event is paid for by sponsorships and registration fees).

John Hardin, executive director of the commerce department’s Office of Science and Technology, said the goal of the conference is to bring researchers together with businesses.

“Most of you know that the prefix nano means ‘to get funding,’ ” Hardin joked.

Hardin got a laugh, but North Carolina is making a mark on the nanotechnology map. Liquidia Technologies might be the best known of the nanobio companies in the state. Research Triangle Park-based Liquidia recently secured a $10 million equity investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Liquidia’s technology allows for the precise engineering and production of nanoparticles whose size and shapes is optimized for delivery of medicines and vaccines to the cells of the body as shown here:

The technology is scalable to permit large-scale production of these particles. It works in the same way that an ice cube tray forms cubes, except that Liquidia’s “trays” form particles at the nano scale. Tom Templeman, Liquidia senior vice president, integrated supply chain, said during a panel discussion that the company calls them “nano ice cube trays” because they’re very small.

The Gates Foundation investment in Liquidia happened after Bill Gates met Liquidia founder Joe DeSimone at an investment meeting. Gates had heard of the company and was excited about its technology. Liquidia and Gates also share ties to the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which has enlisted Liquidia to  use its technology to develop the next generation of malaria vaccines. The Gates Foundation is a backer of that initiative. Templeman said that Gates and the foundation wanted to be more proactive in helping to develop the medicines of the future and Liquidia became the foundation’s first biotechnology company investment. “You’re going to see more of it in the future, no question,” Templeman said.

The nonprofit Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology, or COIN, lists more than 30 nanobio companies in North Carolina working on technologies in various stages of  development. And while those companies may not be in line for a Gates Foundation investment, they will certainly be looking for capital from other sources as they continue to develop their technologies. Drug delivery might just be the start. DeSimone and his team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed nanoparticles that act like red blood cells. This development is a step toward making synthetic blood and perhaps soon, a new North Carolina nanobio company.

Chananit Sintuu, a research associate for Boston-based firm Lux Research, said that nanotechnology in healthcare and life sciences comprised a $19 billion market in 2009. The firm projects that figure will grow to $180 billion by 2015. Right now, North Carolina is not among the nanotechnology leaders, as it just places in the top 15, Sintuu said. California is far and away the leader, followed by Massachusetts and New York. But remember that right now, industrial and manufacturing applications form the primary uses for nanotechnology. If healthcare and life science applications grow as projected, there should be plenty of opportunities for North Carolina nanobiotechnology to grow from a small, niche industry into a very large business.