EuroNanoForum 2017 was held in Valletta, Malta from June 21-23, with the aim of bringing industry to the centre stage of nano innovation. More than a thousand delegates from research, industry and public policy gathered for the event, during which some of the key issues surrounding the continued development of nanotechnology and the increasingly important part it plays in all aspects of European life and the European economy were discussed.

A total of 70 expert speakers delivered a vast array of new ideas, fascinating revelations about their work and a valuable collection of best-practice working ideas based on cutting-edge research as well as commercial experience.

This was particularly evident in the plenary sessions. Speakers included Fabio Gualandris, executive vice president at STMicroelectronics; Berthold Hellenthal, head of Audi comprehensive semiconductor strategy Audi AG; Ed de Jong, vice president of development at Avantium; Klaus-Michael Weltring, managing director at Nanobioanalytic Muenster and member of board at ETP Nanomedicine; and Michel Glotin, scientific director for materials at ARKEMA. They all delivered impressive examples of how nano materials, nano electronics and nano manufacturing processes in general are now fundamental to their business success, while also offering an often inspiring vision of how things will develop over the coming years.

The audience heard how microelectronics are changing manufacturing methodologies, while the Internet of Things is reshaping manufacturing. Machines are becoming faster, more accurate, more reliable and smaller. Medicine is becoming predictive, preventative, personalised and participatory. New materials are making their way into everyday products and driving costs down. Even Lego is soon to be made out of bio-based materials! Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of car innovation will be based on advanced materials and nanoelectronics in the next few years.

Nanotechnology and nanomaterials make all of this possible and this is now driving innovation as never before. “Advanced materials and nano electronics, for example, are vital for the car industry,” said Berthold Hellenthal. “Cars of the future will have a huge amount of nanomaterials, a huge amount of compute power and a massive amount of memory – and as we incorporate all these things, they need to get smaller.”

This, in turn, is changing the way manufacturers like Audi work. “The entire industry has changed a lot from years ago, when most of the work was essentially to do with metal bending,” explained Hellenthal.  “We now adapt and work with different partners in the market, like semiconductor companies, to get them into our production cycle from the start.”

This message about a need for collaboration across industry was echoed by all speakers when discussing the potential of nano innovation to reach the market.

“The medtech industry has 25,000 companies in Europe, has created 550,000 jobs, turns over €106billion a year and produces 500,000 medical devices,” said Klaus-Michael Weltring. “This involves working with people from across the spectrum. Many technologies need to work together to make the sophisticated devices needed. Business must also come together – ICT and health for example.

“We need this to deal with the paradigm shift taking place in healthcare. Soon, over a billion people will know their own genome – predicting illness, preventing it and monitoring treatment will all become automated.”

He went on to outline ESTHER, a new EU initiative designed to bring research and industry into closer alignment in terms of eHealth and smart medical devices, particularly with support for SMEs and helping to set the research agenda for the next round of funding objectives in FP9. “ESTHER will help improve coordination all along the value chain, from R&D to market access,” he said.

In terms of what is driving nano innovation to the market, Michael Glotin touched on the difference between products being driven by the technology itself or by market demand. “We have delivered several nanostructured materials to the market,” he said. “Uptake is slower when the development of the product is driven by the technology.”

Using the example of wind turbine blades being developed by ARKEMA in response to huge demand, he said: “When it is driven by a market demand, it can be quicker.”

It is clear that nanotechnology will be key to Europe’s economic success and an enabler of key technologies that improve the lives of Europeans everywhere. Speakers agreed, however, that Europe needs to act now to make the most of this opportunity.

Fabio Gualandris, for example, warned that as machines become increasingly connected, smarter, faster and more accurate through nanotechnology, we need to focus on ensuring we have the right people skills in place in Europe to keep up with the US.

“We have the skills in Europe,” he said. “We have good people coming from our universities, but they are being driven by the traditional approach and not one where different industries are working together.

“We are five to ten years behind the US,” he continued. “We can catch up but we have to be focused and concentrate on competence and getting industry and research working together.”

At the start of the session, moderator Laura Koponen, managing director of conference organiser Spinverse, asked the audience to predict what they thought would be the key concept to emerge from the speakers’ comments using one or two words on the conference app. “Collaboration” was the word shining biggest from the screen in the resulting word cloud.  It was an accurate and apt prediction, although it was eclipsed by another word as Koponen closed the session by asking the audience the same question. “Risk” now shone bright.

Risk was a key theme running through another key focus of the discussions at the event, particularly at a session dealing with the investment potential of nano and the challenge to turn intellectual capital into commercial opportunity.

Perhaps one of the most memorable speakers in this session was Valeria Nicolosi, professor of nanomaterials and advanced microscopy at Trinity College Dublin, who spoke about her work with her “500 superheroes”. These are layered materials that she has reduced to layers one atom thick, like graphene, all with hugely valuable properties in themselves.

Using these materials, she and her team have developed a full range of energy storage solutions, printed batteries and stretchable devices for the wearable tech market, as wells as all-solid transparent, flexible energy storage devices.

“Industry has come to me with real issues to solve that 2D nano materials can help,” she said. “And this all started with an ERC starting grant in 2012 and, with lots more funding I now have a team of 32 and we are facing future challenges with a very open mind.

Magnus Ryde of Spirit Ventures applauded this sense of entrepreneurial zeal in the researcher, but pointed out the difficulty of taking nano into the commercial world due to the length of time needed, something that would put off venture capitalists who look for much shorter payback timescales.

“Developing key enabling technologies takes time and money,” he said. “The technology takes time to develop –  at least 10 years to take innovations from R&D into a product.

“10 years is too long for venture capital funding. Venture capital is built in 10 year cycles – five to invest, five to harvest. If a venture capitalist see that a key enabling technology will take more than five years to market, they won’t invest.

“And it also costs money to get a company to stand on its own two legs – 10-15 years and 100 million euros.

“So we have to create a funding model that taps into the requirements of this space. If we don’t, our great research will go elsewhere.”

Ryde then explained how ProNano, developed by Spirit Ventures, is now focused on key enabling technologies in Nordic and Baltic countries and this is getting much support, not least from the EC who agreed that something needs to change in this sector in terms of investment.

“We are raising a fund of €300-500 million,” he revealed. “We need the staying power to stay in the game for the time needed.”

As well as focusing on some of the key enabling technologies that are making nano an invaluable part of industrial development, the event also focused on how best to leverage this technology and bring it to market. Investing in nano, nano trends, and nano innovation were all discussed at length, while delegates also had the chance to network on a lively exhibition floor and talk business in special matchmaking sessions.

Closing the event, the EC’s Peter Dröll concluded that he sees Europe as being in a positive space in terms of advanced materials and nanotechnologies. “We are well integrated,” he said.  “There is a solid link between research and industry – not yet with venture capital, but we are looking at ways to solve this. In the next three years we will invest €1.6billion in industrial technology and €700million of this will be in nanotechnology and advanced materials, while open innovation hubs will, we hope, also attract venture capital investment.

“This is a very European sector and very value-driven too. We are reducing weight, making products more circular and are using less energy. Importantly, we are also addressing pressing societal issues.”

Dröll ended by issuing a specific challenge, by promising a €10m prize to the first to produce a battery for a car that has range of 800km, a charging time of  three minutes and lifespan of 10 years. “It’s a huge challenge, but there is a huge reward for us all at the end of it.”

The event ended with a full programme of interactive and highly productive workshops, where discussions took place in more intimate surroundings and focused on everything from advanced materials to value-added industrialisation.