As outlined in Chapter 1, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has a broad, high-level mission to expedite discovery, development, and deployment of nanoscale science and technology for public good and a stated goal (Goal 2) to “foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit.” NNI spending, however, has been predominantly in support of research, including user facilities and equipment used by researchers. This NNI investment has built and sustained a diverse multidisciplinary research enterprise in universities, federal laboratories, and industry. A question framed by the committee’s statement of task is, How can NNI better advance focused areas of nanotechnology toward advanced development and commercialization? In many ways, commercialization of nanotechnology is similar to that of any new technology. Therefore, in order to address this question, it is helpful to review how advanced development and commercialization occurs in general and then to consider how the NNI can accelerate the processes in targeted areas.
Technology-based innovation—that is, converting discovery to commercially valuable application—is a driver of the U.S. and global economy, fueling diverse sectors, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medicine, semiconductors, and electronics. Emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, may lead to evolutionary improvements in existing products and processes, or may lead to entirely new and revolutionary products, businesses, and even industries. As a quantified illus-
tration of this process, the involvement and importance of academia and industry in research related to commercial contributions to the information technology sector has been documented and shown graphically in reports of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. A figure tracking research investments and the development of technologies that reached a market size of more than $1 billion in sales (e.g., microprocessors and cloud computing) over time was first published in 19951 and most recently updated in 2012.2
Whether evolutionary or revolutionary, innovation is the outcome of a complex set of interconnected activities, spanning basic and applied research to development (design and engineering), scaling up to manufacture, and marketing and sales. Innovation activities involve an ecosystem of participants and institutions from the public and private sectors and with expertise in various areas and disciplines, including technology, manufacture, intellectual property, venture capital, industrial hygiene. Figure 2.1 illustrates the relationship among components of the nanotechnology innovation ecosystem, from research and education infrastructure to commercial products and applications. Beginning with the U.S. government establishment of the NNI, governments around the world have invested in the infrastructure and research to advance nanotechnology with the goal of capturing the economic and public benefits.
The innovation ecosystem of Figure 2.1, which requires coordinated efforts by many individuals or entities, is facilitated when the process of new technology development is organized into a series of stages. The technology readiness level (TRL) scale describes the steps from research through successful implementation. Developed originally by NASA and adapted by the Department of Defense (DOD), the scale provides a framework for discussing or tracking the transition from research to application and use. Similar to TRLs, manufacturing readiness levels (MRLs) describe the development of an ability to manufacture. Ideally, a technology would move to higher TRL and MRL roughly in parallel. The TRL and MRL scales are shown in Table 2.1. Although developed for purposes of managing the development of large space and defense systems, this framework is equally applicable to the development of nano-enabled products, processes, and applications.
The federal government plays a particularly vital role as a primary funder of basic and applied research corresponding to TRL 1-3. The development of com-
1 National Research Council (NRC), 1995, Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation’s Information Infrastructure, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
2 NRC, 2012, Continuing Innovation in Information Technology, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
mercial products and processes (TRL 7-9) is generally the domain of the private sector, although some federal agencies like DOD and NASA can support such efforts where essential to their mission.
The emerging focus in the NNI on “translational research” is specifically intended to develop better ways to translate basic research discoveries and advancements into commercial application. There are multiple pathways by which new technology finds its way through the TRL stages and into a commercial product or process, and this applies to nanotechnologies and nano-enabled products and applications.
An idea resulting from basic research that is at TRL 1-2 is sometimes characterized as a “hammer in search of a nail.” Typically, the goal of basic research is to advance knowledge, and while the researcher may be aware of the potential for commercial use, this is not the main motivation. Results may be “pushed” toward application after the research is done—for example, by forming a startup or by licensing to an existing company. The process of transitioning a technology by pushing it toward a particular application often requires resources that, if not forthcoming, can lead to the technology being caught in the so-called “valley of death.”
On the other hand, the commercial sector usually starts with a technology need and seeks to “pull” in a technology solution, either from an in-house research group or from the broader innovation ecosystem. Recognizing that research is fundamental to innovation, the federal government provides businesses tax credits for investing in research.
Both dimensions, the push provided by research and the pull provided by commercial markets, have a role in the innovation process. Addressing a defined
TABLE 2.1 Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) and Manufacturing Readiness Levels (MRLs)
|Level||Definition||Hardware (TRL)||Manufacturing (MRL)|
|1||Basic principles observed and reported.||Scientific research begins to be translated into applied research and development (R&D).||N/A|
|2||Technology concept and/or application formulated.||Invention begins. Once basic principles are observed, practical applications can be invented. Applications are speculative.||N/A|
|3||Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof of concept.||R&D includes analytical studies and laboratory studies to physically validate the analytical predictions of separate elements of the technology.||N/A|
|4||Component and/or breadboard validation in a laboratory environment.||Basic technological components are integrated to establish that they will work together.||The new technology has been demonstrated in a laboratory environment on simple design parts using similar types of materials that would be used in the intended application.|
|5||Component and/or breadboard validation in a relevant environment.||The basic technological components are integrated with reasonably realistic supporting elements so they can be tested in a simulated environment.||The new technology has been demonstrated in a laboratory environment on design parts of the same level of complexity and using the same types of materials that would be used in the intended application.|
|6||System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment.||Representative model or prototype system is tested in a relevant environment.||The new technology has been demonstrated in a preproduction environment on design parts of the same level of complexity and using the same types of materials that would be used in the intended application.|
|7||System prototype demonstration in an operational environment.||Prototype near or at planned operational system.||The new technology has been demonstrated in a relevant production environment on design parts of the same level of complexity and using the same types of materials that would be used in the intended application.|
|8||Actual system completed and qualified through test and demonstration.||Technology has been proven to work in its final form and under expected conditions.||The new technology has been demonstrated in a pilot production environment on production-representative parts of the same level of complexity and using the same types of materials that would be used in the intended application.|
|9||Actual system proven through successful mission operations.||Actual application of the technology in its final form and under mission conditions.||Process has been proven and under control for production.|
NOTE: N/A, not applicable.
SOURCE: Department of Defense, Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) Deskbook, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology, Washington, D.C., May 2005.
technical requirement can promote quite fundamental research and lead to novel solutions. Progress toward a solution that will be economically competitive improves the likelihood for sustained funding and decreases that of getting trapped in the valley of death.
An ongoing challenge for policy makers is to provide appropriate incentives and deploy resources where needed to help ideas resulting from government-funded research move out of the laboratory into practical application and commercial use.
Finding pathways to couple TRL 1-2 discoveries with eventual integration at TRL 6+ requires substantial alignment in the value chain. The incubator model is one that can help the early stage technology creator access the necessary learning and support infrastructure to fill the gaps until later stage investors engage. Incubators often are supported by state or regional economic development agencies and frequently are located near a research university. Incubators targeting local strengths and opportunities abound across the country. Examples that are engaged in the nanotechnology include the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and MassChallenge (see Box 2.1).
The innovation processes sketched above are general but pertain to the development and commercialization of nanotechnology. Crossing the gap from research
to commercialization poses a variety of challenges—most notably, the inability of innovators such as start-up companies and entrepreneurs to secure resources needed to bridge the gap from TRL 3-4 to TRL 6-7, the valley of death. Recognizing this impediment, federal agencies have a number of programs (see Figure 2.2) to help move very early stage ideas closer to a level where they will be attractive to private investors.
Such programs are a potential source of support for nanotechnology innovation.
In fact, NNI participating agencies have utilized programs shown in Figure 2.2, specifying nanotechnology as a topic of interest. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF), DOD, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institutes of Health have cited nanotechnology as a topic of interest in calls for proposals under their Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. And in 2015, NSF called for proposals focused on nanosystems under the broad Engineering Research Center (ERC) program, defined as follows.
A Nanosystem Engineering Research Center (NERC) must be focused on a transformational engineered system(s) that could not be achieved without a significant level of fundamental knowledge of nanoscale phenomena that feeds into devices and components needed to realize the targeted engineered system(s). A NERC must build on a significant fundamental discovery or engineering breakthrough in nanotechnology and/or nanomanufacturing research that is ready to feed into proof-of-concept engineered system test beds within the 10-year life span of an ERC.3
How can the NNI better couple to innovation programs, such as those shown in Figure 2.2, in order to grow the funding for nanotechnology innovation and to ensure the United States captures the value of the substantial NNI investment in nanotechnology research? The interagency Nanotechnology Innovation and Commercialization Ecosystem (NICE) Working Group under the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee is the logical entity to take the lead. The working group has the stated purpose “to promote the advancement and acceleration of nanotechnology innovation within U.S-centric commercial industries,” including by “stimulating nanotechnology innovation in and by federal government agencies, for their use and in transferring technology to the private sector.” One function of the NICE working group is to “promote collaboration between federal agencies to shepherd promising technologies from lab to market.”
Finding 2.1: The federal government plays a significant role in discovery, applied research, and early stage development; the private sector plays a dominant role in product development and commercialization. A challenge for nanotechnology, like other emerging technologies, is to bridge from research to practical application. There are federal programs that provide support for advancing ideas to a level that is more likely to attract private investment.
Recommendation 2.1: The Nanotechnology Innovation and Commercialization Ecosystem Working Group should identify federal programs that
3 National Science Foundation, 2015, “Gen-3 Engineering Research Centers (ERC),” Funding Announcement NSF 15-589, http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2015/nsf15589/nsf15589.htm.
assist with transitioning early-stage concepts to more advanced technology readiness. The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee, with support from the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, should inform the basic research community about these programs and also communicate to federal program managers about how investment in advancement of nano-enabled technologies can provide opportunities for achieving their program and agency missions.
In addition to promoting connections across the broad portfolio of NNI research to programs that can assist in moving technologies to higher TRLs, the NNI can—and to some extent does—focus on areas that are timely for development and commercialization. The 2014 NNI Strategic Plan included as an objective under its Goal 2: “Increase focus on nanotechnology-based commercialization and related support for public-private partnerships.”4 At present, the NNI seeks to focus the program primarily through two mechanisms: Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs) and Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges.
Established in 2010, NSIs are multiagency initiatives designed to focus a spotlight on technology areas of national importance that may be more rapidly advanced through enhanced interagency coordination and collaboration.
According to the 2014 NNI Strategic Plan,5 NSIs are intended to genuinely affect the agency budget process and dramatically improve ground-level functional coordination and collaboration among agencies. By combining the expertise, capabilities, and resources of multiple federal agencies, the NSIs can accelerate research and development and can overcome challenges to commercialization of nano-enabled products. Each NSI is described, and expected outcomes enumerated, in a white paper available on the NNI website.6 Contributing agencies have a stated commitment to coordinating research to achieve the expected outcomes in order to avoid duplication of effort and to maximize the return on U.S. research investments.
According to NNI documents, to ensure that adequate focus is maintained on each NSI, a limited number will be active at any one time and topics will be added or removed, as appropriate. New topics for consideration may come from
4 National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), 2014, National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan, Committee on Technology, Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology, http://www.nano.gov/sites/default/files/pub_resource/2014_nni_strategic_plan.pdf, p. 27.
5 NSTC, 2014, National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan.
stakeholder suggestions, review committee recommendations, evolving presidential priorities, and/or agency input. Topics of interest will be developed into proposals by an interagency group represented by at least three agencies and presented to the NSET Subcommittee. The NNI agencies and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) select NSI areas based on the following criteria: alignment with national scientific, economic, and environmental priorities; potential impact on the advancement of nanoscale science and technology; and need for enhanced interagency coordination and collaboration (e.g., areas that cannot be adequately addressed by a single agency).
The NNI announced three NSIs in its annual report that accompanied the 2011 budget; the 2014 budget supplement included two additional NSIs, for a total of five. In the 2017 supplement, it was announced that one of those, Nanotechnology for Solar Energy Collection and Conversion, was sunset in 2016. A white paper for a new initiative, Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology, was released in March 2016.7 The five current signature initiatives are in nanomanufacturing, nanoelectronics, nanotechnology knowledge infrastructure, sensors, and sustainable water. Information about how nanotechnology will play a role in making progress in each of the NSI areas is available on the NNI website.8 The amount invested in the five NSIs since 2011, as reported in annual budget supplements, is shown in Table 2.2, as well as the percent of the total NNI budget invested in the NSIs overall.
Investment in four of the five NSIs has declined from a maximum in 2012, coinciding with a $200 million drop in the amount of funding reported by DOD, despite a recommendation by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that same year to increase NSI funding. However, the percent of the total NNI budget spent on NSIs from 2012 to 2015 has been roughly constant, ranging between 16 and 19 percent, suggesting that declining NSI budgets are similar to overall declines. Note that figures for 2016 and 2017 in Table 2.2 are not final; in the past, actual investments have often exceeded planned spending.
A progress review of the NSIs is under way; an executive summary and a more detailed progress review of the NSI on solar energy were released in late 2015. The solar energy NSI review lists activities and programs supported by NNI agencies and highlights of the results. It also indicates that in the area of solar energy “[t]he strength of [the interagency] interactions and the active community that has developed make the continued focus of a signature initiative unnecessary. Although these important activities will continue, fiscal year 2016 will be the last year they
TABLE 2.2 Annual Investment in Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (in $million)
|2011||2012||2013||2014||2015||2016 (Estimated)||2017 (Proposed)|
|Nanotechnology knowledge infrastructure||2||8||16||28||23||22|
|NSI as a percentage of NNI (%)||13.3||15.8||18.1||17.3||19.0||12.0||10.9|
NOTE: TBD, to be determined.
are reported under the NSI mechanism, and the NSI spotlight will transition to other high-priority areas for the NNI.”9
NSI activities reported in the 2015 review10 and in the annual budget supplement reports11 are commendable, and the committee heard from NNI agency representatives that facilitation of interagency communication and coordination under the NSIs is of real value. In addition, there has been engagement with the public via workshops and webinars under several of the NSIs.
It can be argued, however, that the full potential of the NSIs to focus the NNI agencies and others in the research community, as well as to speed advancement, has not been met. Such progress requires more than simply stating expected outcomes, it requires defining technical challenges along the way and developing an explicit program to address those challenges. A good example of such an approach is the NNI 2011 Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) Research Strategy, which clearly identifies the various types of information that are needed to support sound risk management of nanotechnology. Although execution of the EHS research strategy is not owned by a single office or agency, it serves as a guide to researchers and managers in the field.
10 NNI, 2015, A Progress Review of the NNI Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives November 2015, http://www.nano.gov/sites/default/files/pub_resource/nsi_status_report_executive_summary.pdf.
Coming to a similar conclusion, the 2013 NRC NNI Triennial Review12 recommended that the NNI agencies develop strategic plans and roadmaps for each NSI. Not only has the recommendation not been implemented, the termination of the solar energy NSI due to the strength of the existing ecosystem (rather than because it met the stated technical goals) suggests that in fact interagency interactions and community building are the primary objectives.
The committee endorses the prior recommendations of PCAST and the NRC regarding the NSIs. If indeed the NNI agencies agree the NSI topics are important and ripe for advancement, more detailed plans and resources should follow; otherwise, progress will lag.
Finding 2.2: Without a plan that has clear targets, goals, and metrics to measure progress, as well as indication of responsible agencies, funding for NSI topics will be more difficult to secure within the NNI agencies and advances will be more serendipitous and less assured.
Recommendation 2.2: Agencies participating in each Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI) should develop a joint strategic plan with roadmaps and interim and end-result goals. The plans should include goals related to facilitating commercialization of research related to the topic of the NSI.
The NNI is using a new mechanism to focus the initiative and the broader nanotechnology community based on grand challenges. The term “grand challenge” does not have a precise definition. In the 2015 President’s Strategy for American Innovation,13 grand challenges are described as “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination.”14
Examples of Grand Challenges
Government-proclaimed grand challenges have proven to be a powerful technological driving force in our nation’s past. A brief survey of some successful grand challenges offers insights and common attributes.
12 NRC, 2013, Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative¸ The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
13 National Economic Council, 2015, President’s Strategy for American Innovation, Office of Science and Technology Policy, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/strategy_for_american_innovation_october_2015.pdf.
An oft-cited grand challenge is the Manhattan Project, designed to produce the first nuclear weapon during World War II. Fear that Germany was developing a nuclear weapon lent urgency to the U.S. effort. The Manhattan Project began in 1939 and culminated in the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. During this period, the project grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly $2 billion dollars (approximately $26 billion in 2015 dollars).
Perhaps the most well-known grand challenge was President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the Moon and bring him back safely, announced in May 1961 and motivated by concerns that the Soviet Union was taking the lead in space. In his speech, President Kennedy argued that the United States should not follow but rather should lead in the “race for space” and set an ambitious target of completing the challenge by the end of the decade. Like the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program was a grand challenge backed by robust federal spending and strong governmental coordination and leadership by a single agency, in this case NASA.
A third example of a grand challenge is the Human Genome Project (HGP), proposed and funded by the U.S. government. Motivation for the project emerged from experts in the scientific community via a number of workshops and reports. The $3 billion project was announced in 1990 and co-led and co-funded by DOE and the National Institutes of Health. It was expected to take 15 years, but a working draft of the genome was announced in 2000, and the papers describing it were published in February 2001. A more complete draft was published in 2003, and genome “finishing” work continued for more than a decade. Interestingly, HGP also generated commercial interest. Building on the initial government-funded effort and the resulting data, which were made publicly available, a parallel project by Celera Corporation, or Celera Genomics, was launched in 1998. Although managed separately, Celera’s alternative approach spurred the public HGP to change its own strategy, leading to an acceleration of the public effort.
There are similarities among the three above identified historical grand challenges. First, the problem was sweeping and of importance for maintaining leadership in something deemed critical to the nation. Second, the end points were measurable: build a nuclear bomb; land a man on the Moon; sequence the human genome. Third, they were well funded. Fourth, there was clear leadership even when more than one agency was involved. Fifth, achieving the grand challenge led to commercial interest or commercial spillovers that had societal benefits. Lastly, in the course of meeting the challenge, fundamental science was advanced from discovery to application, driven by the clear goal of the program. Except for the Manhattan Project, which was kept secret for national security reasons, the grand challenges outlined above were announced publicly and stimulated considerable public interest and private sector innovation.
Assessing grand challenges from the past provides valuable insights, but it is also helpful to look at current examples. DOE’s SunShot Initiative offers a model
that the NNI may find useful. SunShot is a collaborative national endeavor to make solar energy cost competitive by the end of the decade without subsidies with other forms of energy. The initiative has a clearly stated goal of an installed system price of $1.00 per watt or electricity cost of $0.06/kWh. Other characteristics of the SunShot Initiative that are consistent with a successful grand challenge include the following:
- A clear timeframe for achieving the goal;
- A single lead organization (DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) that is responsible for managing the effort; and
- A suite of activities that engage the diverse community and broad expertise needed to address the problems, including academia, national laboratories, and the private sector.
The SunShot Vision Study15 published shortly after the initiative was launched, provides a detailed assessment of the potential for solar technologies to meet a significant share of electricity demand in the United States. The report also outlines a roadmap across multiple technologies that are needed in order to reach the goal. Such a detailed roadmap allows progress to be monitored and provides guidance to the broad community of researchers and innovators, even those working outside the government programs. In 2016, DOE published a series of reports that examine the progress made and lessons learned in the first 5 years of the initiative and the challenges and opportunities the industry faces going forward. Figure 2.3 shows the installed photovoltaic system prices in 2010 when the initiative was launched, at the mid-point in 2015, and the targets for 2020. The SunShot team works to achieve its goals by engaging many elements of the innovation ecosystem—funding cooperative research, development, demonstration, and deployment projects by private companies, universities, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and national laboratories.
Grand challenges also have been identified by nongovernment entities. One example is the Grand Challenge in Global Health initiative (GCGH) launched in 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. GCGH has identified seven global health goals (e.g., improving and creating vaccines) and specific challenges under each goal. In partnership with a number of government agencies around the world, GCGH is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of grants targeting the stated challenges.
Another example of nongovernment developed grand challenges are the Grand Challenges for Engineering, published by the National Academy of Engineering
15 Department of Energy, 2012, “SunShot Vision Study,” Washington, D.C., http://energy.gov/eere/sunshot/sunshot-vision-study.
(NAE) in 2008.16 This set of 14 challenges was developed by a group of technical experts and represents global problems that can be addressed by advances in engineering. The Grand Challenges for Engineering are aspirational and the end points, such as “secure cyberspace,” are not realistically fully achievable. In addition, the National Academies does not fund research programs, but has continued to highlight the challenges by sponsoring events that bring together leaders from the engineering community and through a website (http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/). This approach can focus attention, but is not able to do what needs to be done in order to realize the goals.
16 National Academy of Engineering, 2008, Grand Challenges for Engineering, Washington D.C., http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/File.aspx?id=11574&v=ba24e2ed.
Using NNI Grand Challenges to Transition to NNI 2.0
The Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in October 2014 from PCAST called for the next phase of nanotechnology development that it called NNI 2.0. The report stated that “after 13 years, the success of the first phase of activities and the maturation of the research field has placed the field of nanotechnology at a critical transition point.”17 This point is reinforced by the inflection point in 2011 for nano-enabled product revenue shown in Figure 1.2. The rate at which revenues grew annually after 2011 was approximately twice what it was before.
To further the transition to NNI 2.0, the PCAST report recommended the construct of grand challenges. These grand challenges were to be “instantiated across the NNI ecosystem and in the management of federal activities to focus NNI participants on significant problems of major national interest that, by commercializing the associated science and technology, will benefit society.”18 The report went on to say that organizing activities around grand challenges would be a major community rallying point and would provide additional tools to manage and measure the effectiveness of NNI 2.0. The PCAST Report also articulated important characteristics that grand challenges exhibit, including the following:
- They have a measurable end point. It is clear when they have been reached. As such, they also have a finite, albeit relatively long (probably a decade), lifetime.
- They require advances in fundamental scientific knowledge, tools, and infrastructure for successful completion. In short, when a grand challenge is begun, all the resources needed to complete it are not known. As such, it is necessary to recognize and articulate the risks of the undertaking and to mitigate those risks to the maximum extent possible.
- There must be clear milestones en route to the final grand challenge goals that are both measurable and valuable in their own right. It is only through monitoring these deliverables that it is possible to tell whether or not the effort is on track to achieve its ultimate objective.
- They are integrating. Their solutions require bringing together multiple disciplines—in many cases, disciplines that do not typically interact. In
17 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), 2014, Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Executive Office of the President, October, https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports, p. 10.
18 PCAST, 2014, Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, October, p. 26.
addition, grand challenges span from fundamental science to engineering demonstration and, upon completion, to commercialization.
- Though led by a single agency, the grand challenges are too big to be undertaken by a single, or even a few, institutions. In fact, one way of mitigating the risk inherent in taking on an effort of this magnitude may be to pursue more than a single approach to the problem, thus involving even more institutions than would be engaged in a single approach.
With these characteristics in mind, PCAST recommended that OSTP and the NSET establish grand challenges not just to harness, but to focus and amplify the impact of federal nanotechnology activities. PCAST further enumerated “essential elements” for the identification of nanotechnology-related grand challenges, including the following:
- The investment of the public, industrial, academic, national laboratory, investor, financial, and communication sectors;
- A strong leader who is a member of NSET and who can set a vision for a challenge and convene stakeholders toward its development;
- Identification of critical challenges in the mission space of agencies participating in NNI that have a solution requiring significant advances in nanoscience and technology;
- Understanding of the global landscape in the problem area;
- Engagement of broad swaths of stakeholders in the dialogue leading up to grand challenge selection, including researchers, research managers, and agency representatives; and
- After allowing for significant community engagement, a fairly small set of subject-matter experts and senior advisors should select the grand challenges.
It is worth noting that these elements focus on how to identify—not how to implement—grand challenges. In June 2015, OSTP, working with the federal agencies that participate in the NNI, issued a request for information to gather information from external stakeholders about potential grand challenges that would help guide the science and technology priorities of federal agencies, catalyze new research activities, foster the commercialization of nanotechnologies, and inspire different sectors to invest in achieving the goals.
After considering more than 100 responses, on October 20, 2015, OSTP announced the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy
efficiency of the human brain.”19 The White House announcement of the grand challenge goes on to state the following:
While it continues to be a national priority to advance conventional digital computing—which has been the engine of the information technology revolution—current technology falls far short of the human brain in terms of both the brain’s sensing and problem-solving abilities and its low power consumption. Many experts predict that fundamental physical limitations will prevent transistor technology from ever matching these twin characteristics. We are therefore challenging the nanotechnology and computer science communities to look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the Von Neumann architecture as implemented with transistor-based processors, and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.
There are growing problems facing the Nation that the new computing capabilities envisioned in this challenge might address, from delivering individualized treatments for disease, to allowing advanced robots to work safely alongside people, to proactively identifying and blocking cyber intrusions. To meet this challenge, major breakthroughs are needed not only in the basic devices that store and process information and the amount of energy they require, but in the way a computer analyzes images, sounds, and patterns; Interprets and learns from data; and identifies and solves problems.
Many of these breakthroughs will require new kinds of nanoscale devices and materials integrated into three-dimensional systems and may take a decade or more to achieve. These nanotechnology innovations will have to be developed in close coordination with new computer architectures, and will likely be informed by our growing understanding of the brain—a remarkable, fault-tolerant system that consumes less power than an incandescent light bulb.20
In July 2016, a more detailed white paper prepared by several NNI agencies was released. The white paper outlines technical priority areas and a vision for the research and development needed to achieve near-, mid-, and long-term technical goals.21 The nanotechnology-inspired grand challenge meets many of the characteristics of a grand challenge as identified in the 2014 PCAST report The recent white paper includes milestones, although not all are measurable, en route to the final grand challenge goal that are and valuable in their own right.
The white paper is a useful guide to research needs; however, certain important steps have not been taken. The global landscape remains to be mapped so as to provide prioritization and to identify gaps and areas in which U.S. leadership is threatened or may already be lost.
19 L. Whitman, R. Bryant, and T. Kalil, 2015, “A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing,” blog, Office of Science and Technology Policy, October 20, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/10/15/nanotechnology-inspired-grand-challenge-future-computing.
Most importantly, there is an absence of any dedicated funding or a lead agency responsible for making this grand challenge a reality. If these deficiencies are not remedied, this grand challenge will be similar to the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, that is, clear statements of need without the resources to address them. A more likely scenario is that agencies will report activities that align with the grand challenge, but such activities will only be coordinated, not led, nor show progress toward specific goals.
Also, as noted in Chapter 1, a glaring obstacle to the NNI participating agencies tackling the grand challenge is the fact that it requires advances in areas other than nanotechnology, such as computer science and engineering and neurobiology. In fact, the grand challenge announcement highlights the relationship to other presidential initiatives, in particular the National Strategic Computing Initiative and the BRAIN Initiative. The representatives to the NSET do not have the entire expertise or programmatic influence/control to support the full breadth of research that is needed to achieve the grand challenge. Conversely, those other initiatives depend on continued progress in nanotechnology, while the managers of programs and activities leading those initiatives may not have deep knowledge of the nanoscale. Meeting the nano-inspired grand challenge both depends on and supports progress toward the objectives of these other initiatives.
An example where such symbiosis has been recognized is in the area of water sustainability. The NNI recently announced an NSI on “Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge.” This NSI is part of a broader federal effort focused on “Commitments to Action on Building a Sustainable Water Future.”22 The NSI will address nanoscale properties such as the increased surface area and reactivity of engineered nanomaterials to create precious-metal-free catalysts for water purification, the enhanced strength-to-weight properties of nanocomposites to make stronger, lighter, and more durable piping systems and components, and nanoscale porosity for cost-effective purification or desalination.
Finding 2.3: The NNI is investing in technology areas that are critical to the goals of other federal initiatives, and vice versa. The various initiative leaders and managers both inside and outside of the NNI may not have the entire expertise or programmatic influence or control to efficiently achieve their respective initiative goals.
22 Executive Office of the President, 2016, Commitments to Action on Building A Sustainable Water Future, Washington, D.C., https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/documents/White_House_Water_Summit_commitments_report_032216_v3_0.pdf.
Recommendation 2.3: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee should strengthen engagement with the leadership of other high-priority initiatives in order to determine critical nano-enabled technological dependencies. The subcommittee then should focus NNI efforts to address those dependencies.
Possible mechanisms to focus NNI efforts on areas that relate to other initiatives include developing plans with goals and milestones to address specific nanotechnology needs of the initiatives, establishing an NSI, or—as described below—sponsoring a prize competition.
In recent years, there has been an increased interest in and use of open innovation prizes that engage a broader community of innovative thinkers to develop solutions to a variety of hard problems and grand challenges.
Prizes are an example of technology or innovation “pull” that has been used in the public and private sectors dating back centuries. An entity poses a challenge or problem, states the prize, and the criteria by which the prize will be awarded. Prizes are typically cash, but often come with other benefits, such as access to investors and customers, and free publicity. They also can raise awareness and attract attention to a new area in science or engineering. An attractive feature of prize competitions is that the entity offering the prize only pays if the success criteria are met, and often those attempting to solve the challenge—even just those who are successful and receive the prize—spend much more than the amount of the prize in the process of achieving the goal. Another benefit of prizes is that they tend to engage nontraditional innovators that can elicit novel solutions.
Perhaps the best known innovation prize is the XPrize, founded in 1994 by Peter Diamandis. The first XPrize was announced in 1996 and offered a $10 million prize to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within 2 weeks. The challenge spurred 26 teams to invest more than $100 million, and in October 2004 the prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Today, the XPrize Foundation manages millions of dollars in public prize competitions with the mission to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”23 In 2013, XPrize launched a nonprofit spin-off called HeroX, a version of XPrize that uses crowdsourcing to identify and fund challenges of social value and benefit.
InnoCentive is another organization that facilitates innovation incentive prizes by matching anonymous “solution seekers,” who may be corporations or government agencies, with “problem solvers” who compete for a cash prize from anywhere in the world. Reward amounts can range from $1,000 to $1 million. Government agencies have posted challenges on InnoCentive.
According to the InnoCentive website, they have developed a methodology called Challenge Driven Innovation, “an innovation framework that accelerates traditional innovation outcomes by leveraging open innovation and crowdsourcing along with defined methodology, process, and tools to help organizations develop and implement actionable solutions to their key problems, opportunities, and challenges.”24 Over the years, InnoCentive has established a pool of solvers eager to work on interesting problems and a platform for posting diverse challenges. Problem solvers are vetted to qualify them in advance. Copyright and patent ownership is addressed as part of the process. Cash awards are given to the problem solver with the best solution, in the opinion of the solution seeker. InnoCentive keeps sponsor identities anonymous to help prevent competitors from using the solicitation to learn what the sponsor is working on, or concerned about. The goal is to significantly decrease the time to find a solution by putting it out for anyone to tackle.
XPrize and InnoCentive provide advice and expert support in the development of a good prize-based competition and could be resources to the NNI. These examples confirm that it is essential to clearly define the problem and the specific objective, along with evaluation criteria. Whereas the goal must be specified, the approach should not be. Some competitions give a timeframe within which proposals will be considered. Others are open ended and flexible enough to change.
Prizes that reward novel solutions to posed challenges are an alternative and complementary mechanism to the traditional proposal and selection process typically used to determine how to spend federal funds on research and development. Although nontraditional, the 2010 American COMPETES Act granted all federal agencies the authority to award innovation incentive prizes and the General Services Administration has created a website25 to be a “one stop shop” for agencies wanting to access innovative problem solvers in the private and academic sectors. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenges are among the best known government-sponsored prizes in recent years. Examples include autonomous vehicle and robotic challenges. DARPA challenges typically culminate in an event where finalists who have cleared preliminary hurdles come together to demonstrate their concepts and compete head to head.
24 InnoCentive, “New Book by InnoCentive Executives Unveils the Challenge Driven Enterprise,” last updated April 13, 2011, https://www.innocentive.com/new-book-by-innocentive-executivesunveils-the-challenge-driven-enterprise/.
NASA has sponsored innovation competitions, most notably Centennial Challenges, which provide cash prizes for nongovernment-funded technological achievements by U.S. teams. The contest is named “Centennial” in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. Examples of NASA Centennial Challenges include the Sample Return Robot Challenge (an autonomous rough-terrain robot) and the Mars Ascent Vehicle Prize.
PCAST recommended in its 2014 assessment26 that the NNI offer innovation prizes that reward the first person or group to achieve a grand challenge milestone. Although achieving the Grand Challenge for Future Computing requires advances in areas other than nanotechnology, certain elements or milestones will have a clear dependence on nanoscale science or engineering.
The NNI is using a sort of prize to attract attention to, and stimulate interest in, nanotechnology at the K-12 level. For example, EnvisioNano is a contest for students who submit striking nanoscale images with thoughtful, concise descriptions of the science. Another example is “Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes,” a competition that asks individual high school students to submit an original idea for a superhero, using modern nanotechnology research to inspire unique nano-enabled “gear” for their hero. Winners received cash prizes and the opportunity to showcase their creations at the 2016 USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.
Finding 2.4: XPrize, InnoCentive, and other organizations have well developed, proven strategies for managing innovation incentive prize competitions using cash awards and well defined procedures to engage a diverse array of people and organizations, stimulate additional spending, and produce results.
Recommendation 2.4: NNI agencies should use innovation incentive prizes to engage a broader community to solve technical problems, particularly those underlying grand challenges and other national initiatives. NNI agencies can offer prizes directly, or work through existing organizations.
Support of basic research has been the prime focus of the NNI to date, with the results of such basic research generally published in the open scientific literature and thereby rapidly distributed globally. Technology development for commercial purposes, however, is associated with protecting information. There are four levels
26 PCAST, 2014, Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
of information constraint and protection: trade secrets, patents, process know how, and open literature. If NNI increases investment and emphasis on technology development, then issues related to intellectual property, export control, and other regulatory regimes will require greater consideration as well
At the various fact-finding sessions held in the preparation for this report, there was frequent mention of concern over the potential impact on commercialization of regulatory policy and procedure, especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) handling of nanoscale materials under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA requires manufacturers of new chemical substances to provide specific information to the Agency for review prior to manufacturing chemicals or introducing them into commerce. The EPA can take action to ensure that chemicals that may or will pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment are effectively controlled. But, as with the usage of nanomaterials for cancer treatment those who are developing technologies for commercial uses will be more likely to make the necessary investments if clear in standards and protocols for the appropriate characterization of nanostructures and their environmental impact.