Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials at the molecular level to create products -- even entire industries -- that do not exist today. In this new field, an electron microscope may be a researcher's most important tool -- revolutionizing healthcare, biotechnology, textiles, electronics.
Innovation at the microscopic and molecular scale has long been the stuff of science fiction, promising developments so far out there most people assume they won't live to see them in everyday products.
But with some of the latest innovations, science-fiction technology is touching your lives in some unusual ways –- with products that are already on the market or coming soon to store shelves near you.
In the realm of healthcare and life sciences, nanotech is already getting under the skin of the San Francisco 49ers football team -- literally.
“Tell you the truth, I don't know nothing about liposomes or nanotechnology,” said Andre Carter, a defensive end for the team.
Carter is among a big roster of professional athletes swearing by, and now investing in, Flex-Power, a topical sports cream maker in Berkeley, Calif. It’s one of nearly 700 U.S. companies working in nanotechnology, generating the kind of investor excitement not seen since the dot-com boom.
Companies are now creating products that would otherwise be impossible, if not for nanotech. One new approach, for example, could revolutionize industries like healthcare by creating far more effective devices with more effective ways of delivering drugs to the body.
“The liposome delivery system, which is a nanotechnology, is crucial,” said Bejan Esmaili, Flex-Power founder and CEO. “That's the part that delivers the actives deep to the affected area.”
Flex-Power's active ingredients are loaded into liposomes, microscopic capsules that, when rubbed into the skin, can penetrate deeper and quicker than conventional creams. Athletes say its more effective, longer-lasting and odorless.
“These particles seep into your skin and then helps, it aids in the healing process, it speeds it up,” said Jamie Winborn, a 49ers linebacker.
That’s just one way nanotech may change healthcare: getting medicine where it needs to go faster and more efficiently. But it's not just showing up in sports creams.
Agilent, for one, is combining nanotech and Hewlett Packard's inkjet printer technology to design a “DNA printer.” The device replaces the tedious, hand-made eyedropper-on-a-slide approach, letting researchers develop genetic cures to some of the worst diseases more quickly and accurately, paving the way for a revolution in life sciences.
“I think life sciences today is where the electronic industry was 20 years ago,” said Agilent CEO Ned Barnholt. “The integrated circuit really hasn't been invented yet.”
Affymetrix is using nanotechnology to create a new breed of drugs that can be customized for individual patients. The new drugs are designed to treat specific symptoms from one person to the next, decreasing the problem of over-medication.
Over the past five years, 28 venture capital firms invested nearly $150 million in just 8 nano companies in the healthcare sector. That’s not a huge a figure by venture capital standards, but it represents 17 percent of the total venture capital dollars invested in nanotech during the period -- making nanotech/healthcare and medical devices the industry's hottest investment sector.
At Flex-Power, athlete-investors say nanotech gives them the edge they need to play better, hit harder and recover quicker.
“It's kind of cheating: you get to warm yourself up without even doing anything,” said Terry Jackson, a 49ers running back. “It allows you to go out there and play to your potential.”
At the same time, it’s showing off the potential for nanotech.
(CNBC's Jim Goldman and Candice Tahi contributed to this story.)
© 2012 CNBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved