All of us remember the dot-com bubble, the crippling bust that eventually was a correction of 80% from the peak, and the subsequent moderated recovery. This was easy to notice as there were many publicly traded companies that could be tracked daily.
I believe that nanotechnology underwent a similar bubble, peaking in early 2005, and has been in a bust for the subsequent four years. Allow me to elaborate.
By 2004, major publications were talking about nanotech as if it was about to surge. Lux Capital was publishing a much-anticipated annual 'Nanotech Report'. There was even a company by the name of NanoSys that was preparing for an IPO in 2004. BusinessWeek even had an entire issue devoted to all things nanotech in February 2005. We were supposed to get excited.
But immediately after the BusinessWeek cover, everything seemed to go downhill. Nanosys did not conduct an IPO, nor did any other company. Lux Capital only published a much shorter report by 2006, and stopped altogether in 2007 and 2008. No other major publication devoted an entire issue to the topic of nanotechnology. Venture capital flowing to nanotech ventures dried up. Most importantly, people stopped talking about nanotechnology altogether. Not many people noticed this because they were too giddy about their home prices rising, but to me, this shriveling of nano-activity had uncanny parallels to prior technology slumps.
The rock bottom was reached at the very end of 2008. Regular readers will recall that on January 3, 2009, I noticed that MIT Technology Review conspicuously omitted a section titled 'The Year in Nanotech' among their year-end roundup of innovations for the outgoing year. I could not help but wonder why they stopped producing a nanotech roundup altogether, and I subsequently concluded that we were in a multi-year nanotech winter, and that the MIT Technology Review omission marked the lowest point.
But there are signs that nanotech is on the brink of emerging from its chrysalis. The university laboratories are humming again, promising to draw the genie out of its magic lamp. In just the first 12 weeks of 2009, carbon nanotubes, after staying out of the news for years, have suddenly been making headlines. Entire 'forests' of nanotubes are now being grown (image from MIT Tech Review) and can be used for a variety of previously unrelated applications. Beyond this, there is suddenly activity in nanotube electronics, light-sensitive nanotubes, nanotube superbatteries, and even nanotube muscles that are as light as air, flexible as rubber, but stronger than steel. And all this is just nanotubes. Nanomedicine, nanoparticle glue, and nanosensors are also joining the party. All this bodes well for the prospect of catching up to where we currently should be on the trendline of molecular engineering, and enabling us to build what was previously impossible.
The recovery out of the four-year nanotech winter could not be happening at a better time. Nanotech is thus set to be one of the four sectors of technology (the others being solar energy, surface computing, and wireless data) that pull the global economy into its next expansion starting in late 2009.