Economic Metrics in Nanotech: Do they have a place?

The folks over at the Motley Fool had a look at the market numbers that get used to measure the size of nanotechnology markets: nanotechnology in textiles, nanotechnology in drug delivery, etc., and the overall size of nanotechnologies across all its applicable market sectors.

By and large, the piece was fairly supportive of these economic metrics.

Also, as the piece points out, at the firm for which I currently work, there has always been a healthy skepticism of market numbers when applied to nanotechnology and its markets.

We were most dubious of the NNIâ''s now famed $1 trillion market number by 2015. Like a few others (and I do mean, just a few), we commented: how did they come up with that number?

We deduced that it would have to mean the value of the products that nanotechnologies helped to produce. But we were never made aware of any official explanation of the NNIâ''s methodology or economic models for arriving at that figure.

But after years of collecting data on nanotechnologies, the underlying markets that they enable, and finally developing a workable economic model with the help of a noted economist we felt we arrived at a way of having some predictive tool on the economic impact of nanotechnology.

After applying this model to different markets, such as textiles and food, we thought we would revisit our old nemesis: the $1 trillion market. We foundâ''somewhat to our surpriseâ''that the number was pretty accurate with our model. In fact, by our model we discovered that the impact of nanotechnologies could reach $1.5 trillion by 2015.

Somewhat giddy with our discovery, we announced this news in a free White Paper entitled: Halfway to a Trillion Dollar Market?

Well, the reaction was swift and none too forgiving. After years of virtually being alone in challenging market numbers, suddenly we werenâ''t alone in the peanut gallery and our own skepticism was turned around on usâ'¿almost verbatim.

The argument against our findings took two directions: one was that it is meaningless to talk about a market size of a technology when you need to include the value of the products it enables. And the second was that all of these market numbers donâ''t matter because someday â''revolutionaryâ'' nanotechnology will come along and make all our understandings of economies obsolete.

I donâ''t think we can really address the latter argument, except with maybe, â''That would be nice.â'' But the former argument is worthy of addressing because it challenges economic metrics for industries from chemical to petroleum.

The petroleum industry is a good example. It is a material that enables a host of other industries. Would it be accurate to measure the economic impact of petroleum by counting the number of barrels produced each year and multiplying by the price per barrel?

Not entirely. Without petroleum you would not have olefins to produce plastics, or the aromatics as feedstock for other chemicals that make possible a host of other industries.

It's possible to get carried away with this sort of thing, as we have argued ourselves previously. Accounting for the entire value of a $100,000 Mercedes Benz because there are some nanoparticles on the window coatings, may be going a bit overboard.

But if there is a product out there that could not exist without some kind of nanomaterials, say a nanopant for instance, it makes sense to say that the value of that $40-60 pair of pants would not exist without nanomaterials and should be included in measuring the economic impact of nanotechnologies.

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