Nanomedicine, Commercialization Focus of Winston-Salem Nanotech Conference

By Jeremy Summers, NCBiotech Writer

When it comes to the nanotech industry in North Carolina, big things have come from small beginnings.

A decade ago, only a handful of companies in the state were commercializing nanotechnologies. Today, according to the

North Carolina Department of Commerce, the state is home to more than 100 nanotech companies and more than 25 research and development and education organizations working with nanotechnology.

The growing industry has made North Carolina the perfect home for the Nanotech Commercialization Conference, which took place last week in Winston-Salem.

The conference was hosted by the NanoBusiness Commercialization Association, a non-profit trade organization with the mission of promoting the “commercialization of products designed and developed through the science of nanotechnology,” according to its website. The Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology helped organize the event.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center co-sponsored the event.

City well-suited for event

Now in its fifth year, the conference came to Winston-Salem for the first time. The city has become a hotbed for technology-driven industries. Winston-Salem is home to a growing number of nanotech and biotech companies, many housed in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, formerly known as Piedmont Triad Research Park, which is undergoing extensive renovation.

By the end of 2014, park officials expect more than $520 million in public and private investment in the park, with 2,800 employees at over 35 companies and an estimated annual payroll of $160 million.

The park is already home to several biotech companies, including Carolina Liquid Chemistries and over 20 startups out of Wake Forest University. These companies include NanoMedica, Orthovative Technologies, KeraNetics and Ocular Systems, Inc.

Additionally, a number of nearby colleges and universities offer programs that prepare students for these growing fields. Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials serves as a research center and infrastructural resource for the industry. Forsyth Technical Community College offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science in Nanotechnology, the only degree of its kind in the Southeast. The program gives students hands-on experience for employment in the growing nanotech industry. 

New industry to be a big part of the future

The conference kicked off with a keynote speech from former Virginia Governor George Allen, who co-sponsored the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Implemented in 2003, the landmark development program helped launch the nanotech industry in the United States.

According to Allen, since the program was started, the federal government has spent $24 billion on research and development of nanotechnology. This year’s budget, which is split across the nine agencies involved in the NNI, totals approximately $1.7 billion.

Prof. David Carroll, Ph.D., of the Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials.

The NNI, Allen said, is the “largest funding of any broad-based scientific research since the space race of the 1960s.” Quality of life is continually enhanced by nanotech, he said, and the materials being developed in the industry today will be a part of our lives for decades to come.

“Whether you’re in academia or the private sector, these are exciting times. There’s a great deal of diversity and a great deal of opportunity,” said Allen, adding that the continued spread of nanotech will help create a “more clean, more prosperous, more safe America.”

Commercialization a collaborative effort

David Carroll, Ph.D., who heads Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, talked about some of the ways in which the spread of nanotech commercialization can improve our daily lives. Since most technologies come from research at the university level, it is imperative that scientists and faculty work together for successful commercialization, said Carroll.

Nanotechnology, he said, can be thought of as tiny machines that might attack cancer or be apt for other important applications.“The hope is that all of the imagined applications for these materials are going to find their way into the marketplace,” said Carroll.

Changes in federal funding as well as the disparity between what entrepreneurs and scientists view as commercially viable often prevent some of the most promising nanotechnologies from leaving the lab.

New rules and regulations in intellectual property are forcing universities to rethink their models for IP management, said Carroll. Wake Forest University, where Carroll works, is a good example of how schools can take new and innovative approaches to integrating IP management and research and development efforts. The key, said Carroll, “is to show you can take a technology from benchmark to commercial viability by clearing any hurdles.”

Carroll and his team announced the launch of their Field-Induced Polymer Electroluminescent (FIPEL) technology last fall. FIPEL blends three layers of light-emitting polymer with nanomaterials that glow when an alternating electrical current is passed through them. The breakthrough allows FIPEL lighting to be at least twice as efficient as compact fluorescent lighting. 

Working with the university, Carroll and his team examined potential markets and in order to be more commercially viable, designed FIPEL so that it could be manufactured to integrate with existing lamps or other structures. 

It’s crucial, Carroll said, that the scientific team behind a product and investors in the technology are all on the same page. In order to commercialize nanotechnologies at a faster pace, he said, faculty and investors must think about commercialization along the same lines.

The conference also featured panels with experienced investors and entrepreneurs giving tips for successful commercialization of nanotechnology.

Conference emphasized potential of nanomedicine

One of the most promising aspects of the nanotech industry is nanomedicine, which applies nanotechnology to medical devices or procedures to improve human health.

Benjamin Harrison, Ph.D., chief of Laboratory Operations at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), participated in a panel disccusion focused on the current state of the nanomedicine industry. Regenerative medicine, Harrison said, can “greatly improve quality of life” through repairing soft tissue damage and  treating battlefield wounds in soldiers.

Current methods for treating soft tissue damage require cutting out the damaged tissue and repairing the surrounding tissue. “What would be better is if we could not only cut it out, but also help the body regenerate, regrow and restore that lost function,” said Harrison. “Regenerative medicine is trying to shift the equilibrium away from scarred healing to full regeneration.”

The conference also featured a keynote address from Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the WFIRM. Atala is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of tissue engineering. His address centered on how nanotechnology can be incorporated into medical procedures to create solutions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Atala and his team have been able to grow human tissue from normal human cells in order to treat disease and restore muscle function in patients.

According to Atala, scientists are still “very far” from being able to engineer solid organs, such as a kidney or heart. The good news though, he said, is that organs are very resilient and do not fail until 90% of their mass has been compromised. This means, according to Atala, that scientists don’t really need to replace the entire organ, but rather need to boost the organ by about 10% to get patients out of trouble and restore the organ’s natural function. 

While the strategy for now is to engineer part of an organ to stave off failure, the strides that have been made by Atala and his contemporaries suggest that nanotechnology will play a huge role in the future of medicine. Between the WFIRM and exciting research coming out of nearby universities, including Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina sits poised to be a center of innovation and solutions in the evolving landscape of modern medicine.

Wed, 04/17/2013 - 00:00