Abstract Nanotechnology promises significant improvements of advanced materials and manufacturing techniques, which are critical for the future competitiveness of national industries. This paper is concerned with the sectoral innovation system in nanotechnology in a global perspective with an aim to understand worldwide developments in nanotechnology research from its emerging stage. The research highlights cross-country comparisons, actors and institutions in the innovation system based on quantitative method ( bibliometrics and tech mining). The authors present also the varying involvement of academia, public research institutions and commercial companies in relevant research by finding main research contributors, discourse development, as well as clusters or knowledge networks of affiliations and countries. The research findings show that the significant output of commercial companies in Japan and the United States is different from the situation in the European Union, where the relevant scientific activities are dominated by academic and government research institutions. The research reveals the learning patterns of nanotech innovation structure for the science pole. The findings can be particularly useful for forming technology strategies, science and technology policies by revealing strengths and weaknesses of the emerging innovation system in nanotech, existing country-level competencies and differences.