VILNIUS - It may just be the study of small stuff, but nanotechnology could hold the key to big financial rewards for the Baltic states.
As countries in the region attempt to catch up with-and in some cases surpass-their larger European neighbors in the development of new and commercially viable technologies, nanotechnology, a general term describing science's most miniscule objects, has proven to be a potential windfall.
While the popular conception of nanotechnology often evokes fanciful images of invisible micro-robots or microchips implanted into human brains, the industry's staple products of semiconductors and surface analysis equipment, among others, hold the most promise for the region.
At a recent EU-sponsored conference on nanotechnology held in Trieste, Italy, experts reported that the estimated market value of these tiniest of goods would reach 700 million euros by 2008, climbing to 1 trillion euros by 2015. Nanotechnologies related to information systems are estimated to be worth around 70 percent of this sum.
As a part of its sixth framework plan, or FP6, the European Union's Directorate-General for Research identified nanotechnology as one of its highest priorities for development, a move duplicated in the national technology strategies of Lithuania and Estonia.
The interest demonstrated by governments reflects the common notion that all EU countries, including the Baltic states, cannot remain passive on small technology if they are to stay competitive in the international market and thus benefit their own economies.
Government targets may be one thing, but turning ideas into assets is a different type of work entirely.
Organizations such as Estonia's Tartu Science Park Foundation do much to try to turn these abstract government targets into concrete profits.
Companies such as Clifton AS, a producer of high-quality semiconductors, came to life because of the park's infrastructure support and now serve as examples of how nanotechnology can produce profits.
"We give help to innovative enterprises to realize their full potential, and when this happens, they add value to the Estonian economy," says Paul Pallin, director of the park.
Metec, a producer of automobile parts that also began at the park, employs nanotechnology in its metal cutting and powder coating operations.
"Metec started out with just a few employees on our premises. Now, they just opened up a new plant, and they employ about 100 people," says Pallin.
Another Estonian nanotechnology star is MikroMasch, which produces, among other things, tiny probes with tips whose radii measure less than two nanometers. MikroMasch has been attempting to spearhead the Competence Center Program of Nanotechnology in Estonia, a project that would position the country as a leader in the production of tiny nanotools and nanosensors.
In Lithuania, research groups such as Kaunas Technological University's Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Network are aided by intermediary organizations like the Lithuanian Innovation Center, which acts as a "technology broker."
"Our main work is transnational technology transfer, meaning we help Lithuanian organizations find partners in the European Union," says Kastytis Gecas, the center's director.
The Lithuanian Innovation Center and similar counterparts in the other Baltic states find investors, buyers, and partners for nanotechnologies developed in the country's laboratories, thus turning technology into a concrete financial asset.
With help from grants from governmental organizations such as the Directorate-General for Research, the Lithuanian Innovation Center created a comprehensive database of technologies in the country and now has hundreds of clients.
"We've helped create many partnerships between Lithuanian science and partners in countries around Europe," says Gecas.
With people such as Gecas continuing to work for the promotion of Baltic nanotechnology abroad, the region is positioning itself to become a full participant in this large market for small inventions.