Last week, Alan Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) , said, in a series of speeches in the Boston area, that he expects nanotechnology "to be a very fruitful area" and announced that his company had inked confidentiality agreements with three Massachusetts-based nanotechnology companies. He declined to elaborate, saying, "I can't give you specific examples because these are technologies in development."
Fair enough. I suspect his silence, though, was a more a matter of not wanting to tip his hand to his competitors. That does not, however, prevent me from speculating on who or what types of nanotechnology developments P&G is exploring.
I should preface my remarks by saying that with nearly 300 brands of consumer products to its name, there's no shortage of areas where nanotechnology can affect P&G's bottom line. For instance, new nanomaterials could improve the effectiveness of its Duracell batteries as well as help make Gillette razor blades sharper. Additionally, tailor-made nanoparticles can be manufactured to assist Oil of Olay lotions penetrate the skin to optimum levels, allow Pringle's potato chips to effectively deliver cholesterol-lowering nutraceuticals, or enhance the germ- and bacteria-killing properties of Crest toothpaste or Scope mouthwash.
While I doubt P&G's bevy of research scientists are overlooking such applications, I feel the developments of which Lafley spoke are probably broader in nature and most likely to have something to do with how nanotech can improve packaging.
Among the companies that come to mind are Triton Systems, Aspen Aerogels, Eikos, and Konarka. The first is developing nanomaterials for long-lasting food packaging, while Aspen Aerogels is a leading producer of nanoporous, lightweight materials. One of its top products is known as "frozen smoke" (that's because it's 95% air), and it's among the lightest solids known to mankind. Both materials, obviously, have properties that can be exploited by a number of P&G products.
The third company, Eikos, develops and licenses highly transparent carbon nanotubes and has publicly stated that its technology -- "conductive ink" -- could be used to manufacture "smart windows" that change characteristics, depending on the needs of its users. If this is possible, it's not much of a stretch to imagine "conductive ink" being used to make "smart packaging."
If you're wondering where the power for this "smart packaging" might come from, another Massachusetts-based nanotech company, Konarka, is developing unique nanoparticles that can efficiently convert sunlight, and even indoor light, into electricity.
The combination of the two technologies could not only be used to help keep items fresh and/or detect when they have lost their freshness, it's possible that the packaging itself -- which is now a static medium -- could be turned into an interactive advertising medium that conveys information unique to each specific user. (For instance, imagine your bottle of Scope telling you that it's time to take a swig.)
Of course, this is just speculation. What is not debatable is that Lafley called nanotechnology "fascinating" and concluded his remarks by saying, "There's a lot of power in minimization. Less is more."
Indeed, less is more, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some old P&G products hitting the store shelves with new, innovative nano-enabled packaging in the near future.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich has been thinking small since grade school. He is the author of two books on nanotechnology, including the forthcoming, Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He owns shares of Intel, but holds no financial position in Procter & Gamble or any other stocks mentioned above. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.