FEATURE: Israel's big results in nanotech

Feb 19, 2016, 6:23 PM EST
Bar Ilan University, Israel.
Source: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/flickr

More than 1,200 participants from around the world will converge on Tel-Aviv on Monday and Tuesday to take part in NanoIsrael 2016. It will be the 5th bi-annual International Nanotechnology Conference & Exhibition and will connect cutting-edge researchers with entrepreneurs, investors, and government officials. The conference aims to facilitate real results, with some 400 nanotech projects available for industrial application to be presented.

“In the European Union, they say that by 2025, there won’t be a single field that doesn’t have nano, and that’s also the direction that we are seeing,” said Rafi Koriat, who is in charge of cooperation with industry and academia at the Israel National Nanotechnology Institute (INNI). Therefore, NanoIsrael 2016 will cover all of the broad categories of nanotechnology R&D: biotechnology, materials, photonics and telecoms, defense and aerospace, and medicine, as well as semiconductors and other emerging industrial sectors. Many projects will seek or already have international collaborations.

Despite Israel’s small population and its modest budget for nanotechnology (around $70 million per year from government and industry sources, compared to about $3 billion invested annually in both the U.S. and the E.U.), the country is world-renowned for its nano research and commercialization.

According to the Times of Israel, in the past nine years, Israeli nanotechnology researchers have filed 1,590 patents (769 granted so far), published 12,392 scholarly articles on the subject, and had 129 "nano-success stories," which include establishing start-ups, selling ideas or technology to multinationals, and licensing patents. 

Over 120 Israeli firms are engaged in developing nanotech-related products, according to INNI. Most of these are startups with core missions devoted entirely to nano-enabled or nano-enabling products. And there are currently over 1,600 ongoing nanotech research programs between Israeli universities and local or international firms in a wide range of applications.

Credit for nanotech’s success in Israel goes in large part to forward-thinking government and academic policies. INNI was established in 2005 to both promote the industry and strictly oversee its functioning. (Its website states “our small size is also our advantage -- it means sharper focus, more efficient use of funds, fewer commercial obstacles, rapid prototyping and testing, and higher quality standards.”) At the same time, a five-year nanotech fund was created, drawing upon government contributions as well as corporate and private donations. In 2007, nanotech centers were set up at six top Israeli universities. Dan Vilenski, head of INNI, said:  

“We developed a pay for play model, very rare in academia. Universities that wanted funding for their nanotech programs had to make an effort and raise money on their own, which we matched. In addition, payouts were linked to performance – how many students were enrolled in nanotech programs, how many graduated, how many research projects they were carrying out in cooperation with other universities or companies, the number of doctorates graduated, and much more.”

A total of $250 million was raised for the five-year fund; each nanocenter received a third of its funding from the government, a third from the university, and a third from private donations. The five-year fund was such a hit that it was repeated, although with a different focus. Rather than the initial goal of building applied nanoscience infrastructure as a foundation for academia and industry, the new emphasis shifted to specific R&D programs that could be applied to industrial applications within a reasonable time. In fact, the nanocenters hired entrepreneurs to identify early-stage emerging opportunities as well as strategic partners, and then help bring about commercial application.

Now INNI is in its third five-year program. It continues to fund new research programs, provide scholarships, and assist researchers in bringing their ideas to market – aided by the high-profile NanoIsrael conferences.

Traditional industry is often slow to adopt new technologies, but collectively it is the most important customer for nanotech. (It still accounts for 35% of Israeli jobs, compared to 10% in high-tech.) Koriat said he believes that many industries that don’t integrate nano in developing products will disappear within 20 years. To avoid that scenario, the Economy Ministry’s Office of the Chief Scientist is providing R&D support for integrating nanotechnology into traditional industries.

There have been already been encouraging results -- for years, in fact. The Nanotechnology Consortium, established by Koriat in 2010, brought together 13 firms and leading researchers with the goal of using nanotubes to improve existing products. (These tiny structures can make materials stronger and more stable, or even give them antibacterial properties.) Three of the firms -- Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and Israel Aerospace Industries -- are already putting to use knowledge from the consortium, for example, reducing the weight of airplanes by integrating carbon chips into parts, weapon systems, and electrical capacitors. A later addition, Vulcan Volta Batteries, was able to use the nanomaterials to double its battery life to four years at little additional cost -- a major breakthrough in an industry whose manufacturing has not changed much in almost 60 years.

Other countries would be wise to learn from the success of INNI’s academic-business partnerships. Even better would be direct scientific and governmental partnerships on nanotechnology, as Israel and Germany agreed to on Tuesday. The declaration of intent they signed to boost bilateral R&D will include joint programs to support small and medium-sized nanotech firms, and will entail cooperation between research institutes from both countries.

Smaller nations in particular should be inspired by Israel’s nanotech prowess – it just goes to show that big budgets are not required for high-quality results. The institutional structure is far more important, and the market will take care of the rest.