Prof Hugh Clare, chief of the network that manages UK funding into microsystems and nanotechnology, has been a major driving force behind the sector doubling in size within three years. Stuart Nathan reports.

Small stuff is big business. According to Prof Hugh Clare, director of the Microsystems and Nanotechnology (MNT) Network, the sector that deals with the very small is working on a larger and larger scale. Starting off as offshoots of many established sectors, including traditional engineering fabrication, microprocessor development, pharmaceuticals and plastics, nanotechnology is now creating its own distinct breed of practitioner. ‘When the dust settles,’ said Clare, ‘I think it’s going to be an industry in its own right.’

Clare’s association with nanotechnology stretches back to his days with Unilever, when he was a founder member of the UK Microsystems and Nanotechnology Manufacturing Association (MMA). After serving as chairman of the MMA for over four years, he was appointed as the first director of the MNT Network in 2004.

‘The history [of the MNT Network] goes back slightly longer than three years, with the publication of the Taylor Report, which said that the UK was in danger of falling behind its competitors in the application of microsystems and nanotechnology,’ Clare said. As a result of the Taylor Report, the government announced a £90m cash injection into microsystems and nanotech. The MNT Network was set up to manage the portion of this investment, £40m, earmarked for capital projects in the area.

‘I’m delighted that although we started off with £40m, we’ve managed to get more money from the DTI, from the Scottish, Welsh and English Regional Development Agencies, and we’ve got matched funding from industry,’ Clare said. ‘And we’ve ended up with a total of some £225m for the commercialisation of MNT.’

This funding will be used to set up regional centres of excellence for nanotechnology, explained Clare. ‘We will eventually have 24 centres that we’ve put funding into to encourage and enable the commercial development of microsystems and nanotechnology in the UK.’ MNT companies are spread fairly evenly across the UK, Clare said, although there are particular concentrations in the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Cambridge and Oxford and in the central belt of Scotland between Edinburgh and Glasgow. ‘Scottish Enterprise has invested £43m over the past three years,’ he commented. ‘There’s quite a bit of money going into medicine there, but as microelectronics becomes nanoelectronics, there’s some investment gone into that as well.’

Development of microsystems and nanotech in the UK is focused on four main areas: nano and micro measurement; bio-nanotechnology; materials; and integration of MEMS devices. Within these, the two main strains of the sector — small-scale devices and components, and manufacture and application of very small particles — are represented roughly equally.

According to Clare, the cross-sector versatility of MNT means that the technology is becoming increasingly pervasive. ‘The technology is such that it tends to cross all industries. If you take something like microfluidics, it can range from the process industries right through to medical testing kits.’

It’s this versatility, said Clare, that is leading to rapid growth in the sector. ‘We did a report in 2003-4 that found that the UK industry had an £11bn turnover, employed 20,000 people, and there were 370 companies that we were able to identify as microsystems and nanotech.

‘We’re now compiling the statistics for 2004-5, and these are provisional figures, but we’ve found that the numbers have all doubled. Turnover is about £23bn, there are over 750 companies, there are about 43,000 people employed in the industry and, interestingly, we’ve been able to identify another 250,000 people who are strongly dependent on MNT in some way for the products they make.’

The structure of the industry is similar to most emergent sectors, with four to six companies employing several thousand people — the largest is hard-drive manufacturer Seagate, which has two large factories in Northern Ireland — and the vast majority with between one and 30 staff. But the numbers continue to grow, Clare said, and the sector’s influence is now filtering through to undergraduate level.

‘For the past 20 years there have been postgraduate courses, and very good ones, at places like Cranfield,’ he said. ‘What we’re increasingly finding is that over the past few years modules in undergraduate courses in microsystems and nanotechnology, have been expanding; and very soon we’ll see dedicated MNT undergraduate courses that’ll take you from cradle to grave, so to speak; from the basic science to a commercial product.’

One effect of this is a blurring of the barriers between the two branches of MNT. ‘The reason for that is that nanoparticles are being incorporated into structural materials,’ Clare claimed. The fact that this is happening fastest in the arena of professional sport is helping raise the profile of the technology — and, more notably, of some of its demonstrable benefits.

‘Roger Federer’s won Wimbledon for the past two years using rackets with nanoparticles. Wilson makes golf clubs with nanoparticles in the shaft. And there are tennis balls that have been used in the Davis Cup that have clay nanoparticles on the inside to stop the air leaching out, so they stay harder for longer. So what we’re seeing now is that there is an increasing interface and coming-together of the people who make the nanoparticles and the people who use them and incorporate them into products.’

Clare sees the biggest advances in MNT in the UK coming in areas where there are interfaces with existing strengths. ‘The UK has a very strong base in nanoparticulates and we have a really strong industry in plastics, and we’re seeing the two coming together in a positive way. I see big growth in those areas,’ he said. ‘And of course, we also have tremendous strength in pharmaceuticals. We’ve seen big advances in the use of MNT in drug discovery, with nanofluidics and microsynthesis techniques, but I think we’re going to see more in drug delivery, both internally in terms of implants and suchlike, and externally with micro-needles.’

Personal healthcare is also likely to see rapid growth, he predicted. ‘It’s a very big area that hasn’t really started yet — the first commercial product was Unipath’s home pregnancy testing kit which used microfluidics, and there are increasing numbers of products using nanotechnology.’

Clare has noted the recent report from the Royal Society on the possible health effects of nanotechnology, particularly over the effects that nano-scale particles might have on the body. ‘It’s extremely important,’ he said. After a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2004, the industry started to develop protocols for testing of nanoparticles that are not incorporated into a liquid or solid.

‘DEFRA has introduced a voluntary scheme for nanoparticle manufacturing companies to register details of these particles, and The MNT Network is involved with the Institute of Occupational Medicine to look at any risk or hazard of any new unincorporated nanoparticles that come on to the market,’ he said.

This work has attracted attention from overseas. ‘This is a global issue, and I’m delighted to say the UK is taking the lead on it. The US and Japan have been very keen to engage with us; they’re both looking at the health and safety issues from a different perspective.’ In the US the focus is on the effect of nanoparticles on cells, while Japan is looking at the industrial perspective of manufacturing risks.

This collaboration belies the fierce international competition in the area, with the US, Japan, Germany, France and South Korea also investing heavily in the sector. ‘Lux Research carried out a survey in late 2003, which showed the UK in an “ivory tower” because we’ve got a strong research base but we’re still getting to grips with commercialisation. But Lux has taken note of the investments we’ve made, and it is suggesting that by 2012 we’ll be the fourth dominant power worldwide, getting very close to Germany and ahead of France.’

Commercialisation is, of course, a historical weakness of technology in the UK, but Clare hopes that lessons have been learned. ‘I think we are handling it better,’ he said. ‘We’ve had some major success stories such as Unipath, where the technology was developed in the UK and a big industry sector built on the back of it, so MNT does seem a bit different. I think people have been smarter in hanging on to intellectual property rights.’