Nanotechnology has supported breakthrough innovation across many industries yet has been met with mixed stakeholder views. Recently, BSR hosted a member event for pharmaceutical companies to discuss nanotechnology applications in the healthcare sector and to consider the related CSR implications. It was an educational experience to be sure with lectures from two science luminaries: Dr. David Hollinshead, Director Science Policy, AstraZeneca and Mike King, an expert from MATTER—a U.K.-based organization focused on stakeholder engagements surrounding new technology applications and their implications for civil society.

Compared to the most material issues pharmaceutical companies face—access to medicines, product quality, supply chain, ethics in sales and marketing—nanotechnology is often treated as a horizon issue. While there are some stakeholders with questions around nanotechnology, we learned that the objective science behind nanotechnology stands to bring pharmaceutical companies more opportunities than risks.

Nano means “small”—and the simple fact is that smaller particles have larger surface area and are therefore more quickly absorbed into the blood stream. As Dr. David Hollinshead put it, “Nanomedicines are most likely better medicines.” And already, many pharmaceutical companies have begun utilizing nanotechnology to improve drug delivery and targeting. In oncology, for example, nanomedicines are being tested for their ability to reach cell targets that have otherwise eluded more conventional medicines.

Yet, the nature of this scientific advancement remains surrounded by “unknown unknowns.” And there is a need for companies—in the pharma sector and beyond—to be proactive in the management and communication of this technology. From MATTER’s “Walking with Stakeholders” project, we know that lack of information is itself a source of distrust among stakeholders. As King put it, “It’s not so much that nano is an issue today, but it’s worth managing and watching closely if only to avoid a situation like that in which Monsanto found itself with GM (genetically modified foods).”

So for pharmaceutical companies, the question is not, “Is nano a stakeholder concern?” but rather, “What do we need to learn, and then what do we need to show our stakeholders to gain their trust?”