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Nanotechnology Cluster Grows on Strength of Region’s Biotech Innovation


Research Triangle Region, N.C. – Nanotechnology may be tiny but its potential impact is large and growing in the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina, an emerging hub of nanotechnology innovation, particularly in the area of nanobiotechnology.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies ranks the region fourth in the nation for its nanotechnology cluster. Jim Roberts, director of business development for the Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology (COIN) in Durham, says nanobiotechnology is an area of enormous potential.

“We have 40 companies in the nanobio space in North Carolina, third only to Silicon Valley and Boston. Most of them are in the Research Triangle Region,” he says.

It is no accident. “The state has made significant investment in the infrastructure to promote this type of knowledge,” Roberts says. “We have more than 35 centers for nanotechnology within the state’s university system. The N.C. Biotechnology Center plays a large role in providing financial support. We are well positioned for leadership in this important and growing sector.”

That investment is paying off in economic growth. “These are high-salaried jobs,” Roberts says. “If you consider that biotechnology is the second largest industry in the state behind agriculture and this is the most promising area for biotech growth, it makes sense to continue investing to ensure this sector grows.”

Perfect storm of breakthroughs converge to drive sector growth

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating very small materials - 1/100,000th the width of a human hair - on the atomic and molecular scale to create new materials and devices. It is an enabling technology that can be applied across virtually any field, from medicine, electronics and biomaterials to energy production.

Michael Zapata III, serial entrepreneur in the nanobio space and entrepreneur-in-residence for N.C. State University’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, says a unique combination of competencies and knowledge advances have converged to position the Research Triangle Region for leadership in this area.

First, advances in knowledge and engineering are opening the floodgates of innovation on two key fronts:

  • Understanding how entire biological systems work, through advances in the “omics” (genomics, metabolomics, proteomics), bioinformatics and technology platforms.
  • Precise engineering and manipulation on the nano-level, which allows products and processes to be developed that have specific properties and functions.

“We now have tools to enable us to understand entire systems as well as the ability to engineer products and materials that do exactly what you want them to do,” Zapata says.

At the same time, the region has emerged with leading competencies in five key areas that intersect to drive discovery and innovation: nanotechnology, biotechnology, photonics bioinformatics and genomics/metabolomics/proteomics.

“If you take those five areas combined, the Research Triangle Region has a better pool of assets in those areas than any other place in the world,” Zapata says.

The result: the next generation of products and processes, from biofuels and medical devices to drug-delivery techniques that enable better targeting and effectiveness of drugs and improved instruments that allow scientists to more quickly identify and sequence genomes or develop vaccines.

“Any company that comes here and wants to develop products or processes with nanomaterials can find leading work and all the partners they need to get that work done,” Zapata says.

Zapata’s latest two ventures work from both sides of that innovation continuum. Protochips Inc. is an early-stage company that develops analytical tools that enable more targeted research and development of nanoscale materials. ArrayXpress is a genomics and bioinformatics services company that helps researchers and companies optimize products and processes.

Other companies across the region are blazing similar trails by leveraging these powerful overlapping areas of discovery:

  • Advanced Liquid Logic, a Duke spin-out, has developed digital microfluidics technology that enables Lab-on-a-Chip devices that can be configured in software to execute virtually any assay protocol.
  • Liquidia Technologies, a UNC-spinout, has translated and refined a semiconductor manufacturing to produce nanoparticles with very specific size, shape, surface functionality, chemical composition and flexibility to improve treatments for cancer or vaccinate against influenza.
  • Xanofi, a N.C. State spin-out, is commercializing a low-cost, high-volume manufacturing process to create nanofibers with varied properties and compositions, many not possible with conventional processes.
  • XinRay Systems is creating new x-ray technology that requires fewer moving parts and produces higher-quality images, opening the door for a new generation of x-ray devices that are more reliable and effective.

Critical mass of nanobio assets

MedCity News writer Frank Vinluan, in a recent story, attributes North Carolina’s rapid emergence as a nanobio hub to its very intentional actions and “fortuitous concentration and cooperation of business, government and academia.”

In the Research Triangle Region and across North Carolina, state and regional economic development leaders continue to nurture the sector’s growth by leveraging its natural fit and application in life sciences, in particular.

Among the many regional assets supporting the growth of nanobiotechnology are:

  • A world-leading life sciences cluster that includes virtually every major pharmaceutical company as well as the largest concentration of biomedical contract research organizations in the nation, top specialty healthcare centers, scores of medical device and instrument companies, and a large concentration of companies and organizations focused on biological agents and infectious disease control and response.
  • More than two dozen research centers, including centers at each of the major universities (Duke, N.C. State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and at Shaw University that are advancing discovery in both nanotechnology and its medical applications.
  • Specialized support centers that accelerate the commercialization process, advocate for policies to promote industry growth, convene experts and companies for networking, such as COIN and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, which provided seed funding to launch COIN specifically to drive the cluster’s growth.
  • The state’s economic development focus on nanotechnology innovation, which is further elevating the region’s position in this emerging field. Through COIN’s efforts, for instance, the Commercialization of Micro-Nano Systems Conference convened in North Carolina in August for the first time in its 16-year history, bringing industry leaders from around the world to the state to network and focus on industry growth.
  • More than 40 companies that are developing and producing nanomaterials, systems and processes that treat and cure disease, conserve the world’s resources, reduce pollution and enhance quality of life.

For more information on the Research Triangle Region’s nanotechnology cluster, companies and resources, visit www.researchtriangle.org/clusters/nanoscale-technologies/.

For more information on the statewide nanobiotechnology cluster, visit COIN’s Web site, www.nanobiotech.org.

The Research Triangle Regional Partnership leads economic development for the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina, home of The Research Triangle Park (RTP) and the 13 north-central N.C. counties of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Moore, Orange, Person, Vance, Wake and Warren. For more information, visit www.researchtriangle.org or call (919) 840-7372.