In an earlier blog post, I discussed how insurance needs to return to its roots of protecting innovation, just as it did at the dawn of the automotive age.

In today’s booming world of technology, we have that opportunity once again—but this time, in order to succeed, we need to first throw away our old Industrial Age way of thinking. We need to stop thinking about ourselves and put “we the people” back at the center.

Case in point: the emergence of nanotechnology, or the study, control and engineering of function systems at the molecular scale. In its original sense, the term refers to the projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, high-performance products whose precision would be flawless. A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter. Consider that a red blood cell is about 7,000 nm across, a human hair 80,000 nm wide, and a water molecule slightly less than 0.3 nm in diameter.

Although widespread use of nanotechnology is still in the future, it is currently being tested in several industries, most notably in medicine, agriculture and electronics (and has been around for some time in apparel manufacturing in an attempt to prevent our workout clothes from smelling so bad!).

And its use is growing. According to a recent study by market researcher Global Information Inc., the annual worldwide market for products incorporating nanotechnology is expected to reach U.S. $3.3 trillion by 2018. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network predicts that the need for technology professionals working in nanotechnology will increase to 1 million employees by 2015. Anything that has ever been built can be built with dramatic increases in precision using nano-construction approaches.

Nanotechnology has enormous potential to change society through new medical treatments and tools; more efficient energy production, storage and transmission; better access to clean water; more effective pollution reduction and prevention; and stronger, lighter materials, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology (PEN), a think tank at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

And nanotechnology is already in commercial use as well. According to PEN’s recent Consumer Products Inventory of more than 1,800 products currently on the market, many contain nanotechnology but are not advertised as such. These include clothing, grooming and cosmetics products, household appliances, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages and more.

But there’s a darker side to this trend. The fact that many manufacturers won’t confirm the use of nanotechnology in their products begs the question of whether or not its use is safe. The reality is that perhaps we simply don’t know. So whose role is it to understand new risks and integrate them safely into society? Why, the insurance industry, of course.

According to a 2013 article in Business Insurance, the risks involving nanotechnology are viewed as a function of the rapid growth and pervasiveness of nanotechnology, and of medical and scientific uncertainty concerning its effect on human health, safety and the environment. This is attributed to the very characteristics of nanoparticles that make the technology revolutionary — size (incapable of measurement using normal techniques), reactivity and conductivity (more than larger particles), and routes of exposure (dermal, inhalation, and ingestion).

Just as the emergence of the horseless carriage more than 100 years ago called for the insurance industry to rethink its risk pools and services, so will the ongoing growth of nanotechnology in business and consumer products. Who can you turn to in your company to answer the looming questions on the implications of nanotechnology? You’d better start looking, because the risk isn’t looming—it’s upon us.


2 responses:

  1. Great piece. Its interesting that nanotechnology has so many use cases. I thought I’d highlight a recent BBC story that emphasizes an interesting application of nano-technology. A book with pages that can be torn out to filter drinking water has proved effective in its first field trials. Its pages contain nanoparticles of silver or copper, which kill bacteria in the water as it passes through. The “drinkable book” combines treated paper with printed information on how and why water should be filtered.

    It would be great to see a health or life insurer help run this pilot, and be part of the ecosystem. This could also be an opportunity for insurers to complement microinsurance programs. Like you said it has historically been the insurance industry’s role to make innovation a safe reality, and what better opportunity than one like this.

    1. Hi Jonathan, great to reconnect with you! Thanks for the input–I love your example of the “drinkable book,” especially in light of the growing microinsurance market. My colleague Thomi Meyer recently published an interesting series of blog posts on the topic (see Small-Ticket Insurance is a Big Opportunity). The convergence of this market with disruptive innovations (e.g., the growth in microinsurance is made possible by mobile devices) is a great example of how insurers can expand their ecosystem for big growth opportunities.

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