Interview with Chiara Venturini, Director General, Nanotechnology Industries Association

What’s your role within your current organisation, and what does the NIA work on?

I joined the Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA) as Director General in February of this year, after over a decade in membership organizations representing different industry sectors from ceramics to fuel cells and hydrogen, to digital and ICT.

I am really excited with this role: the NIA was first established in 2005 and has grown into the leading global organization representing the entire value chain of the nano sector. Our members are companies manufacturing or using nanomaterials, but also research organizations and providers of services related to the commercialization of nanotechnology, meaning that the association is a great platform to support the technology development from the lab to successful market roll-out. We work with our members to develop the right environment for the sector from a regulatory and policy perspective, but also in terms of fostering confidence in nanomaterials’ performance and safety, and in identifying and addressing challenges on the pathway to commercialization.

How have conversations surrounding sustainability within the nanotechnology industry changed over the past few years, and how is the industry preparing for a greener future?

Sustainability has been around for a while, but the adoption of the Paris climate targets and UN Sustainable Development Goals has made it a key part of the transition to a different economic model, and companies are starting to embrace it as a driver of commercial success – especially as more and more investors start looking into sustainability performance as a criterion guiding their decisions.

The chemicals industry including nanomaterials has a fundamental role to play in the transition to a sustainable economy, as recognized in particular in Europe by the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability which was released at the end of 2020; the document also links the concepts of safe- and sustainable-by-design (SSbD), making the transition to SSbD chemicals one of the main goals of EU policy. Nanomaterials have been frontrunners in the area of safe-by-design in particular, with several EU-funded projects delivering tools and methods that can be used to implement this approach. However, technical and financial barriers remain, and support from the public sector in addressing them will be key to the success of the SSbD transition, especially as it is closely linked to regulatory compliance.

The other side of “greening chemistry” is “greening by chemistry”, and this is where nanotechnology has a significant role to play, too: nano-based solutions have a great potential to enable sustainable applications in sectors as diverse as construction, automotive, agrifood… and we all stand to benefit from their scale-up and roll-out.

What new nanotechnology discoveries are yourself and NIA most excited about?

It’s difficult to choose as the technology is so flexible and has so many different applications. The COVID pandemic has obviously put healthcare front and center, and nanomedicine applications for medical imaging and targeted drug delivery, for instance, are extremely exciting.

To go back to our previous question on sustainability and the enabling role of the technology, there are a number of interesting applications in the energy sector such as nanomaterials increasing the productivity of solar panels or the efficiency of batteries for energy storage.

On the environmental protection side, nanotechnologies for air and water filtration as well as for soil management are being adopted in the agriculture sector. Nano-enabled lightweighting solutions are also an amazing application, given how critical these materials have become for the transport, construction, and defense sectors. I would recommend browsing the NIA YouTube channel for recordings of our Nano in Action webinar series, which covered all these applications and several others!

What have been the greatest challenges the nanotechnology industry has experienced in recent years?

As with all innovative and emerging technologies, the R&D-to-market route can be long and challenging, especially for the latest generation of nanomaterials. For the successful scale-up and market roll-out of new technology, communication between academia and industry is paramount. Associations like the NIA can support this effort by providing an information exchange platform to researchers and companies.

Another important piece of the puzzle is the level of investment; earlier I briefly touched upon the need for support in the development of safe- and sustainable-by-design chemicals, but investment is needed more in general when it comes to research and development of nanotechnology, both from public and private actors. This is all the more true when taking an international perspective and considering the fact that industry in certain geographies receives considerable government support, leaving others at a competitive disadvantage.

Finally, there is still a perception challenge to address when it comes to nanomaterials: especially in the EU, chemicals safety legislation is very comprehensive and ensures a high level of protection for downstream users and consumers, with stringent testing and approval requirements for placing new substances on the market. However, concerns around nanomaterials are frequently voiced, sometimes in the absence of solid scientific evidence, and have contributed to a safety misperception. As NIA we are working with our members to help them address this misperception, and to give more visibility to the science and best practices for the safe use of nanomaterials.

Why are yourself and NIA involved in our show, and what are you most looking forward to?

I guess I cannot say “An in-person event at last”? But more seriously, it is great that we can finally attend a trade show and meet other participants in the same physical space.

The NIA has participated in the European leg of the show in the past, and are excited to join the US event. A few of our members are either based or active in North America, and I look forward to connecting with new companies; for an industry association, it is great to be able not only to exchange on the latest research and industry developments, but also to speak with companies and learn more on their needs and challenges. The more industry voices we hear, the better we can bring them to the table in our advocacy work.