Nanotech could be a sure bet for the Irish economy: Intel’s O’Hara

23 Nov 2009

Ireland cannot afford to take a scattergun approach to future industries, but if there is one area the country stands a great chance to win in it’s nanotech and nanoscience, Intel Ireland general manager Jim O’Hara said.

Speaking ahead of Nanoweek, which aimed to highlight the importance of this emerging sector from 30 November-4 December, O’Hara said Ireland should be working to ensure its students are supported to be the best-in-class in terms of science, maths, engineering and technology.

O’Hara, addressing a group at Dublin’s Science Gallery, said that 70-80pc of kids are going to need these skills to survive in the 21st-century economy.

“We have a lot of work to do. To me, the glass is half full and we need to map ourselves to the aspiration of being the best in the world, generally in education but specifically in scientific and technological areas.

“In terms of research and development (R&D), every country in the world sees R&D as an engine for the future world. Ireland has come from behind but has made lots of progress but we’re still only at the start of our R&D journey.”

O’Hara said that in the past decade, Ireland has spent more than €8 billion to bring itself to a leading position in the science, technology and engineering world. “We don’t have the money or resources to take a scattergun approach to emerging industries, and therefore we have to pick certain areas and make bets on them.”

One of those surest bets, O’Hara said, is the area of nanotechnology. In recent weeks it emerged that Ireland is in sixth place worldwide in terms of nanoscience.

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

Revolutions in this space could have profound implications for electronics, pharmaceuticals, energy and future materials, from clothes to makeup.

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

These companies utilise nanotechnology for continued product innovation and competitiveness. Of €150 billion in goods and services exported by Ireland in 2008, it is estimated 10pc were enabled by nanoscience and related nanotechnologies. By 2015, these nanotech exports could reach €30 billion in value.

“We have to spend our money wisely and pick areas.
The one thing that will kill us is if we keep
changing our minds and changing horses.”

– Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel Ireland

Globally, nanotechnology enables nearly US$250 billion worth of products and this is on track to exceed US$3 trillion in 2015.

“Nanoscience could be the right bet because it is going to be the building block for everything we will do with our lives in the future,” said O’Hara. “If you want to succeed in R&D you need to be in nanoscience.

“When I first began in the electronics sector in the 1970s buying microprocessors, there were 2,000 transistors on a single piece of silicon – today there are over 2 billion. Each transistor costs less than a grain of rice.

“Nanoscience, the creation of nano devices and structures, will require the discovery and use of exotic new materials that will be fundamental to the continuation of Moore’s Law as well as the biomedical industry and pharmaceuticals industries – all of these industries’ futures will be embedded in nanoscience.

“We have to spend our money wisely and pick areas. The one thing that will kill us is if we keep changing our minds and changing horses. If education and R&D are two key pillars for the future of the country, then the third pillar is the internet.

The importance of broadband

“It is inconceivable to me how we could talk about having a 21st-century Smart Economy without making high-speed broadband ubiquitous. The fact of the matter is there are still parts of this country that don’t receive broadband – yet how are they expected to participate in the general economy and the future distribution of wealth?” O’Hara said.

“If we are to have a pipeline of co-ordinated R&D from which we can create economic wealth, then it is also vital that we have a broadband rollout strategy that will give ubiquitous affordable broadband.

“We need a government policy that embraces these three pillars – education, R&D and broadband – every choice we make in these difficult times will then be informed by that strategy.”

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