Last November, the Royal Society hosted an event at which companies were asked the question “How can business respond to the technical, social and commercial uncertainties of nanotechnology?” I was one of only a couple of academics at the event, which attracted representatives of 17 companies, many of them very large household names not previously associated with nanotechnology. The event took place somewhat under the radar, and was conducted under Chatham House rules, allowing the participants to speak freely without what they said being attributed to them. However, some information about the day has now been released in the form of this short workshop report (PDF).
The joint sponsors of the day were Royal Society, the Nanotechnology Industries Association, and Insight Investment. The Royal Society’s interest is obvious, in view of its long-standing involvement in considering the broader implications of nanotechnology, and it’s no surprise that the NIA, a newly established trade association, would want to be involved. The participation of Insight Investment is perhaps more surprising and interesting; this is a fund manager with around £100 billion in investments. This means that they hold, on behalf of clients including large institutions and pension funds, substantial equity stakes in many of the companies that took part. Thus they have a direct financial interest in whether the companies in question are in a position to exploit business opportunities that arise from the uses of nanotechnology, and can deal sensibly with any uncertainties that might arise.
The position paper that was written to inform the discussion – An uncertain business (PDF) – is now also available. This divides the uncertainties that might be associated with nanotechnology into three categories. Technical uncertainties include the well-known issues about possible toxicity of nanoscale materials, while social uncertainties involve the different ways in which people might react to new products involving nanotechnology. But many of the participants were exercised by possible commercial uncertainties, that is to say issues such as the potential risks to brand value that bad publicity might lead to, together with risks to cost of capital and insurance that might arise from adverse opinion in the financial and insurance markets.