Statistics Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Results of the pilot survey on nanotechnologies

Warning View the most recent version.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please "contact us" to request a format other than those available.

by Chuck McNiven, SIEID, Statistics Canada

Although nanotechnology can be thought of as a sector of its own, it is clear that nanotechnology is a cross-sector phenomenon with potentially significant impacts.  Nanotechnologies can be found in areas as diverse as biotechnology and health, agriculture, electronics and computer technology, environment and energy, optics, and in materials and manufacturing.

About this article
About the author

About this article

Questions on nanotechnology are included in the Survey of Advanced Technology 2007 (results expected in 2008), while information about nanotechnology R&D expenditures is included in the 2006 Research and Development in Canadian Industry (RDCI) survey, which uses a combination of tax and survey data. These surveys are intended to provide concrete information on nanotechnologies as well as to test concepts and definitions, with the intent to implement dedicated nanotechnology surveys in the future. Inclusion of nanotechnology in the Federal S&T survey and other existing surveys is also being explored.

This article discusses the results of the 2006 pilot survey on nanotechnologies. For more detailed information, see the SIEID Working Paper.


Nanotechnology is likely approaching the stage when an organized statistical program would benefit stakeholders representing a cross-section of perspectives. Canada has been very active in leading discussions on nanotechnology definitions and statistical methods at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Nanotechnologies have generated much interest, and the development of statistics has been identified as one of the priorities amongst participating nations.

A challenge in the measurement of nanotechnology activities lies in their diversity. As nanotechnologies shift from the research laboratories to the commercial front, their impacts on economic and social fronts may become more significant.  Statistics Canada used the following definition in its initial steps towards collecting information on nanotechnology:

Nanotechnology is a suite of technologies which enable the direct manipulation, study or exploitation of systems or structures where at least one dimension is on the nanometre (nm) length scale (typically less than 100 nm). The ability to control matter within this regime allows us to exploit phenomena which predominate at these length scales, leading to the production of novel materials and devices which exhibit qualitatively different properties than that of the corresponding bulk material.

Respondents to the pilot survey were also provided a more detailed list of nanotechnologies. The results of the survey should be viewed in the context of a pilot survey where new concepts are tested and evaluated. While accurate given the context, a full survey process dedicated to nanotechnologies would result in more robust results.


A profile of the nanotechnology sector in Canada


In 2005, 88 firms reported involvement in nanotechnology; the vast majority (91%) was active in research and development (R&D), while 27% reported that they were in the production or market stage. Firms reported the greatest involvement in nanomaterials (43%) and nanobiotechnology (42%), followed by nanomedicine, nanophotonics and nanoelectronics. Some firms reported activities, primarily R&D, in more than one category.

Small firms accounted for 81% of all respondents, with large and medium-sized firms accounting for 10% and 8% of firms, respectively. Provincial distribution of the firms revealed 30 firms in Ontario (34%), followed by Quebec with 25 (28%), British Columbia with 19 (21%) and Alberta with 12 (14%) firms. The remaining firms were spread across Canada. The size and provincial distributions of stage of development and nanotechnology category followed patterns similar to those observed for Canada as a whole.

Financial details

Firms reported $28 million in nanotechnology revenues in 2005, an increase of 19% over revenues in 2004. However this is far less than the near-doubling of revenues ($55.8 million) forecast by respondents for the year 2007. Quebec accounted for the majority of revenues (52%), with Ontario following at 22%, British Columbia at just under 14% and Alberta at 12%. Financial data for the rest of the provinces are not available due to the small number of respondents in those provinces. The 72 small firms earned 88% of all nanotechnology revenues in 2005. 

Nanotechnology R&D expenditures totalled just over $40 million are in Canada. Again, Ontario led the provinces with 38% of nanotechnology related R&D, followed closely by British Columbia at 35%, Quebec at 22%, and Alberta at just under 5%. Total Canadian nanotechnology R&D expenditures rose 12% between 2004 and 2005, with firms forecasting additional expenditures of $18 million a year by 2007. R&D which was contracted out made up about 6% of total nanotechnology R&D expenditure in 2005; this could almost double to just under 10% with the expenditures forecast for 2007.  Not surprising is the fact that 93% of nanotechnology R&D is undertaken by small firms, since they account for 82% of all firms and 88% of all nanotechnology revenues.

In 2005, 22 firms attempted to raise capital for nanotechnology-related activities. Of these, only eight small firms were successful in raising just over $16.5 million. This demonstrates a fairly significant failure rate and could be of importance to the future growth of the nanotechnology sector and a concern to stakeholders. Provincial data are not available.

Surprisingly, given the early stage of development of the nanotechnology sector, 34 firms reported a total of 559 intellectual property (IP) instruments in 2005. Patents made up 60% of the total and pending patents comprised 28%, followed by technology transfer agreements at 26% of the IP activity. Licensing agreements accounted for 20% with the balance comprised of the ‘other' category. The majority of firms were in Quebec, with 14 firms reporting 112 IP instruments—almost all were patents or pending patents. In Ontario, 13 firms reported 226 IP instruments, of which 56% were patents or pending patents.  Four British Columbian firms reported 177 IP instruments, of which 77% were patents and an additional 15% were pending patents. Other provincial data are not available.

The unexpectedly high number of patents has been investigated and verified. The survey question asked firms about the number of patents and other IP instruments without geographic parameters. Therefore, it is possible that some double counting may have occurred raising the total number reported. In addition, these patents may not be unique to Canada.

Human resources

In 2005, 88% of the 380 nanotechnology employees were found in small nanotechnology firms.  The majority (76%) of these employees has full-time duties as nanotechnology employees and the remaining 25% were employees with part-time nanotechnology duties. Ontario led with 36% of nanotechnology employees, followed by Quebec with 32%, British Columbia with 22% and finally Alberta with just over 8%. Overall 15% of firms, virtually all small firms, reported having difficulty attracting nanotechnology employees, with scientists and technical staff the most commonly cited areas of difficulty. Provincial data availability is limited; 40% of firms in British Columbia reported difficulty finding nanotechnology staff, more than double the percentage of the next highest province (Quebec at 19%) and Canada as a whole. In British Columbia, scientist and technical shortages were again the most common difficulty reported.


These results illustrate the level of nanotechnology activity in Canada and although it is a relatively small sector at the moment, nanotechnologies are believed to hold the ability to develop into the next transformative technology. A single pilot survey is not robust enough to definitively address all the issues surrounding nanotechnologies. But by placing the results of the survey in the context of a framework for the development of indicators1, it is clear that the results begin to shed light on some key questions:

  • What is nanotechnology?  For statistical purposes further discussion of definitions is required, but this survey provided an empirical test of one definition which was reasonably understood by respondents.

  • Who are the actors in nanotechnology? There are 88 mainly small firms concentrated in four provinces, but distributed across Canada.

  • Where is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology seems to be concentrated in nanomaterial and nanobiotechnology, however much work remains to further refine where in the economy nanotechnology will be found. This is a primary challenge facing all emerging technologies.

  • Why use nanotechnology?What are the outcomes? Firms reported $28 million in nanotechnology revenues. However the more than $40 million in nanotechnology R&D could be viewed as an investment in the firm, as well as hope for future revenues. The longer-term impacts are an area for future work.

  • How many resources have been committed to nanotechnology? With 380 employees and over $40 million in R&D (with a further 46% increase forecasted for 2007), there is a small but growing commitment of resources to nanotechnology. Of significance is that only 8 of 22 small firms that attempted to raise capital were successful. They did however report raising over $16 million to further their efforts in nanotechnology.

  • How connected? Over 70% of nanotechnology firms reported collaborative arrangements with universities, other firms and government. As the needs of the firms change so too will these connections.

Despite the challenges facing systematic measurement of nanotechnology, precedent can be found in the approaches undertaken and results seen. The measurement of nanotechnology is in its infancy and much work and many challenges remain with respect to monitoring, measuring and analyzing this emerging technology, however the pilot survey on nanotechnology has successfully begun to address some of the critical questions.

About the author

Chuck McNiven is with the Science, Innovation and Electronic Information Division (SIEID) at Statistics Canada. For more information about this article, please contact


  1. For more information about the framework mentioned here and used by the Science, Innovation and Electronic Information Division (SIEID), see Statistics Canada (1998). Science and Technology Activities and Impacts: A Framework for a Statistical Information System, Catalogue Number 88-522. Ottawa, Canada.