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Fast Forward: Disruption and the Singapore economy

The invisible disruption of nano-scale

The science of very small structures works its magic in the background, but this emerging technology has also revolutionised many industries and is set to do much more.

A local start-up has set its sights on using minuscule particles to kill off bacteria, an innovation that could end people's worries about smelling bad after a workout, or after walking from home to the train station on the way to work due to the hot and humid climate.

Bacteria is what makes sweat smell bad and young start-up firm Salus Nanotechnologies is developing a formulation of nano-particles that gives fabrics anti-bacterial properties. These particles work by creating bacteria-killing chemicals called reactive oxygen species.

What's even better is that the production of these reactive chemicals is stimulated by the presence of light and moisture, two things in abundant supply in sunny Singapore.

Welcome to nanotechnology - the science and art of manipulating structures as small as a billionth of a metre, and harnessing the special properties they have at those scales. Such particles are, of course, invisible to the naked eye since it would take some 100,000 of them to make up the width of a human hair.

Nanotechnology is also invisible in another sense - it has been working its magic in the background in areas ranging from cosmetics and clothing to construction materials and even cancer-fighting drugs.

Take products people come into contact with every day. A 2013 report by the US non-profit organisation Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies highlights the steep growth rate of those with a nano-element; from 54 products in 2005 to over 1,600 in 2013. Health and fitness is by far the biggest group, led by personal care products such as toothpaste and soaps; followed by clothing such as those with wrinkle-resistive features; then cosmetics, sporting goods and sunscreen.


The research team from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology that developed the green tea nanocomplexes for targeted cancer drug delivery - (from left) Dr Nunnarpas Yongvongsoontorn, Dr Joo Eun Chung, Dr Shujun Gao, Prof Jackie Ying, Dr Susi Tan (holding the green tea formulation), and Dr Motoichi Kurisawa. PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF BIOENGINEERING AND NANOTECHNOLOGY

The value of manufactured finished products that will include some aspect of nanotechnology is difficult to determine, but various estimates place the number at between US$3 trillion (S$4.1 trillion) and US$4.4 trillion by 2018, up from about US$731 billion in 2012.

These figures were cited in a report prepared for Munich RE, the reinsurer, which considers nanotechnology such a significant force it is studying the possible impact of its health effects on insurance claims.

THE SINGAPORE SCENE

Singapore is at the forefront of nanotech research in certain areas, says Dr Lerwen Liu, managing director of consultancy NanoGlobe. She is of the view that the city state "has state-of-the-art infrastructure for R&D in nanoscience and technology".

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There is a centre here to develop materials as thin as a single layer of atoms, which scientists say can do wonders such as enable batteries to be recharged in 16 seconds, and pave the way for ultra-thin glowing display screens. It's called the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials and, in 2014, the National Research Foundation (NRF) poured $50 million into it.

Another world-class institution here is the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Nanoimprint Foundry launched in 2013, which helps companies develop industrial-scale applications.

It is collaborating with local small and medium-sized enterprise Wangi Industrial to produce an anti-reflective glass that repels both water and grease. They hope to bring the product to market by the end of next year.

At Nanyang Technological University (NTU), researchers are designing nanorobots that draw energy from chemicals to propel themselves and navigate according to the direction of light or magnetic fields. These could eventually be deployed in nanosurgery and drug delivery.

Then there's A*Star's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering. It is working on using nanotech to enhance security features on banknotes and product authentication tags so as to make them almost impossible to counterfeit. Its scientists do this by producing overlapping colour prints at a resolution of 62,500 dpi (dots per inch) that appear three-dimensional under a microscope. They are working towards 100,000 dpi.

BRIGHT FUTURE

Nanotechnology is coming to maturity and it is going to disrupt a lot of stuff.

DR LERWEN LIU, managing director of consultancy NanoGlobe.

In the biomedical realm, researchers at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) at A*Star have also managed to incorporate substances from green tea into nanoparticles for targeted cancer drug delivery. These green tea-enhanced particles are more effective in targeting cancer cells and leaving healthy cells unharmed, reducing the dosage, cost and side effects of the drug.

IBN executive director Jackie Ying says the multidisciplinary approach adopted in this project is important to nanotechnology.

"They (biologists and clinicians) feed us with interesting problems, and then we (engineers and chemists) come up with interesting solutions together with them."

Associate Professor Xiong Qihua of NTU's School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences believes that the nanotech sector here will continue to grow for decades to come, with the emergence of new ideas that straddle different sectors.

 

TOO EXPENSIVE

Until nanotechnology has a much lower entry cost, it will remain out of reach for most applications.

DR ALEX LIN, head of Infocomm Investments, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore's venture capital unit

It is difficult, however, to put a number on the size of the nanotech sector here. That is partly because of the way national funds for science and research are allocated. The NRF does not have a separate category for nanoscience and nanotech because it regards them as "horizontal enablers" that span different disciplines.

The NRF does, however, expect current funding mechanisms, such as its Competitive Research Programme (CRP), to continue to support research in this field. In fact, a quick check of the 68 research projects funded by the CRP since its inception in 2007 finds that more than 25 per cent are related to nanotechnology.

START-UPS WANT IN TOO

Academic institutions may be doing much of the heavy lifting, but nanotech start-ups here are also receiving more support.

Salus Nanotechnologies, for instance, has an investment offer from local venture capital firm Red Dot Ventures under the NRF's Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS), in which the Government funds up to $500,000 for qualifying start-ups. This is Red Dot Venture's first proposed investment in the nanotech sector.

Mr Leslie Loh, managing director of Red Dot, says: "In our pipeline, nanotechnology hopefuls compete alongside other highly technical businesses.

"Salus Nanotechnologies earned Red Dot Ventures' support because they are easily scalable across multiple verticals, address an immediate market need, and fit well within existing customer processes."

If the funding is approved, Salus will get a total of $589,000 to fund manpower and other operational needs.

Mr Loh highlighted the importance of public-private co-investment schemes, such as TIS, as they encourage venture capitalists to take greater risks in supporting emerging technologies.

"Nanotech inventors and entrepreneurs rely on publicly available funds because of the expensive nature of nanotechnologies," he adds.

He believes the sector will continue to grow due to three factors - first, technology is optimised through nano-scale manipulations; second, nanotechnology manufacturing gets cheaper; and third, government funding continues.

"We predict the sectors the Singapore Government supports as part of Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020's (RIE2020) spending portfolio will be the sectors that nanotechnology commercialisation will be greatest," he says.

He is referring to the four main sectors identified in RIE2020, the NRF's funding programme which has allocated $19 billion towards research and development over the next five years.

These four main sectors are advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences, services and digital economy and urban solutions and sustainability.

RIPE FOR REVIEW

Dr Alex Lin, head of Infocomm Investments, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore's venture capital unit, has a different, more pessimistic view of nanotech's trajectory. He says the high entry cost of nanotechnology currently puts it out of reach for most applications, and it remains difficult to scale up.

The equipment needed for nanotechnology - such as electron microscopes - are expensive, and many nanomaterials can currently be produced only in small quantities.

IBN's Prof Ying, who applies nanotech in bioengineering, believes that more can be done to further drive progress here.

"In many countries, including the US, nanotechnology is so special that it is a line item in the budget," she says.

Take as an example the 2017 US Federal Budget which will provide more than US$1.4 billion for the country's National Nanotechnology Initiative. US-based inventors also lead the world in nanotechnology patent applications and grants, accounting for 54 per cent of them, according to a 2012 study by the law firm of McDermott, Will and Emery. By contrast, Asian inventors account for 24 per cent.

Prof Ying says that with more funding in nanotechnology, researchers here in institutes like the IBN, which she heads, will be able to set up more spin-off companies to bring their innovations to the masses.

In this respect, Prof Ying thinks Singapore is still too risk-averse. In biomedical research, for example, there is good funding for the research phase but that dries up come time for clinical trials that involve administering drugs or nanoparticles to humans, as chances of success are lower. But such trials are important steps towards commercialisation.

NanoGlobe's Dr Liu says adoption of nanotechnology in consumer products in Singapore is not as quick as in countries like China and Japan which have greater manufacturing capacity. She says that investors here still see more opportunities in information technology and software rather than in hardcore engineering.

"Singapore does not have this manufacturing value chain to take what's developed in the laboratory to the market," she adds.

That is an area ripe for review as Singapore works out how best to position itself for the economy of the future. As Dr Liu points out, "nanotechnology is coming to maturity and it is going to disrupt a lot of stuff".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'The invisible disruption of nano-scale Fast Forward: Disruption and the Singapore economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe