Nanotech competency centre will make Ireland a world leader

4 Dec 2009

The industry-led Competence Centre for Applied Nanotechnology could propel Ireland to a leadership role in the emerging nanoscience field above competitors like Singapore and Germany, one of its founding fathers says.

Nanoscience, or nanotechnology, is a discipline of science where materials are studied at very small dimensions of less than 100 nanometres. One nanometre is one billionth of a metre – a human hair is 50,000 nanometres in width.

Irish credentials

Ireland already has many of the credentials to capture business and investment in this space, but industrial competencies need to be established and shared. Ireland’s nanotechnology exports currently stand at €15 billion and could reach €30 billion by 2015.

According to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Ireland has more than 500 companies – multinational and indigenous – employing circa 130,000 people in ICT, medical devices and biopharmaceuticals.

Speaking with during Nanoweek, Leonard Hobbs, engineering research manager at Intel Ireland, said the fact that while the competence centre is hosted at the Tyndall Institute in Cork and co-hosted at Trinity College-based CRANN, it will benefit from the complementary skillsets at both institutes.

“The clue is in the name – competency centre – it is not about doing new research but establishing competencies. The other key factor is it is an industry-led operation with decisions made by an industry-appointed chairman and an industry board.”

CCAN’s beginnings

The Competence Centre for Applied Nanotechnology (CCAN) began life as a project 100pc funded by both Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland to the tune of €1 million per annum over five years.

However, as the centre grows, Hobbs said the plan is to attract funding from other sources, such as the Enterprise Ireland Innovation Fund and EU funding under Joint Technology Initiatives like ENISA.

CCAN involves some of the world’s leading IT and pharmaceutical companies, such as multinationals Intel, Seagate, Medtronic and Analog Devices, and Irish companies Aerogen, Audit Diagnostics, Creganna and Proxy Biomedical.

It was established by the companies coming together to define their common research interests, which will have a strategic impact on their business area in the coming years.

Global competition

Looking at international competition, Hobbs said that Ireland is not exactly trailing behind competitors in the nanotech space, like Germany, Singapore and Japan. “The advantage we have here is we have industries that are prepared to work with academia in a hand-in-globe way. Our CSETs are very impressive and we can do things as a country because we are small and flexible.

“The nanotechnology opportunity will take time to fully exploit but the wheels are starting to turn. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that will enable ICT, biotech and pharma companies to reach new heights.”

The next step on the journey, Hobbs believes, is the construction of new facilities around which companies of the future will cluster, such as a nanotech fabrication facility.

“Ireland must continue to invest in research infrastructure. That’s what makes a country competitive. Tyndall and CRANN represent two major investments. And while it’s hard to say this in the current economic environment, we need to look at further Greenfield R&D investments around which other technology start-ups will cluster.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Leonard Hobbs, engineering research manager at Intel Ireland.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years