Nanotechnology firms, nurtured on billions of dollars in government grants and venture investments through most of this decade, are getting ready to go public.

Close to taking such a step is another stage in the evolution of nanotechnology, the science of materials measured at a billionths of a metre.

Specialized use: A scientist at Unidym in Menlo Park, California, inspecting coated substrate used to manufacture touch screens.

Experts note that nanotechnology-enabled products are already used in industry.

“There are 200 commercial products in cosmetics, apparel and sporting goods in which nanotechnology plays a role," said Lynn E. Foster, emerging technologies director for the law firm Greenberg Traurig Llp. and author of the 2006 book Nanotechnology: Science, Innovation and Opportunity.

An increasing number of nanotech products are in the offing. Mihail Roco, senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation and an architect of the US government’s research effort, predicted in an interview on the website of the National Nanotechnology Initiative that by 2015, nanotechnology will play a crucial role in the $1 trillion (Rs39.6 trillion) worth of products, “which would require 2 million workers."

Companies in nanotechnology speak of adapting their research to medical innovations, in which nanoparticles would deliver medicine directly to individual cells, and to solar energy, in which nano-enabled photovoltaic coatings would capture and store the sun’s energy at a lower cost than today’s solar panels.

The NanoGram Corp. in Milpitas, California, is aiming some of its research efforts toward such solar ambitions. “We have 58 of our 69 employees working in R&D in the clean technology area, including solar power," said Kieran Drain, chief executive of NanoGram, which earns revenues by licensing innovations to manufacturers of optical and electronic products.

NanoGram has a venture with Nagase & Co. of Japan, a manufacturer of light-emitting diode, or LED, screens for digital devices. “Our nanomaterials enable the screens to emit more light," Drain said. In its 11 year history, NanoGram has spun off or sold operations to other companies in communications and medical electronics. In the last two years, the company has raised almost $27 million in venture capital backing and looks to go public in 2009 “when we’ll have become larger in annual revenues," Drain said.

Another company hoping to go public in the near future is Unidym Inc., which works with clusters of carbon nanoparticles that possess extraordinary properties in tensile strength and conduction of electrical current. Sean Olson, vice-president for operations and strategy, said Unidym is working with companies that produce the touch screens for cellphone devices, ATMs and airport check-in terminals.

“Our carbon nanotube technology makes the light-emitting chipsets less brittle and able to emit more light," he said. “Our screens can take a pounding."

Unidym, based in Menlo Park, California, is a subsidiary of the Arrowhead Research Corp., a public investment company that was founded in 2003 to back small companies engaged in nanotechnology research. Arrowhead, based in Pasadena, California, is advised by half a dozen professors at the California Institute of Technology. In March, Arrowhead helped Unidym merge with Carbon Nanotechnologies, a Houston-based firm that was founded by the late nanotechnology pioneer Richard Smalley of Rice University, who won the Nobel Prize for his work.

“Unidym and Carbon Nanotechnologies make a powerful combination for the future of the semiconductor industry," said John Miller, vice-president, business development, at Arrowhead. He explained that nanoparticles can produce semiconductors at more infinitesimal levels than current electronic technology and at lower cost than today’s manufacturing plants.

Arrowhead is backed by Fidelity Investments, the mutual fund company, and York Capital Management, a hedge fund company, and other public shareholders.

The Arrowhead example highlights two factors in the recent evolution of nanotechnology. One is the role of universities. In disbursing $8 billion in research grants since 2001, the National Nanotechnology Initiative has worked through 60 or so universities all over the US.

The other factor is the fickleness of financial market opinion. At the beginning of this decade, nanotechnology was greeted with predictions of instant wonders and investment success. But when technological developments seemed to take longer than anticipated, investor enthusiasm cooled and nanotechnology was looked on as an overhyped promise. Now attitudes are becoming positive again, Foster, the nanotechnology author, said, and “we’ll see many firms coming to the public markets."

Indeed, NanoDynamics Inc., a company that has developed a nano-enabled fuel cell that generates hydrogen energy at military bases and factories, filed a registration statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in May intending to raise $100 million with a public stock offering. It withdrew the registration statement in November because of financial market uncertainties, but is a candidate to go public when markets settle down.