Small Wonders

In the world of nanotechnology, good things come in really small packages.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the May 2008 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Brian Ruby calls himself the paparazzo of the nano world. His Seattle company, Carbon Nanoprobes Inc., takes photographs of very tiny things. It has created a nanotube-tipped probe designed to improve the microscopes used in nanotechnology.

The company, with five full-time employees and three rounds of financing, is in discussions with instrument manufacturers and hopes to begin making sales by the end of the year. Ruby, 24, first synthesized carbon nanotubes as a teenage intern at IBM, and he started Carbon Nanoprobes when he was a sophomore at Columbia University.


At the other end of the nanotech universe are companies like Nantero Inc., co-founded by Thomas Rueckes, Greg Schmergel and Brent Segal, all 39. The Woburn, Massachusetts-based company earned revenue of more than $15 million in 2007. Among the products it has in development is NRAM, which Schmer-gel describes as a memory chip that could be used in any electronic device and has the speed of RAM but is nonvolatile, so it retains its data even without power. Nantero develops intellectual property and licenses it to manufacturers; its partners include Hewlett-Packard and BAE Systems, a major defense contractor.


Ruby and Schmergel are among the entrepreneurs ready for a boom in nanotechnology, and at least one futurist think tank believes the field is poised for tremendous growth. Social Technologies, a global research and consulting firm, asked experts worldwide to predict the most important scientific and technological breakthroughs with significant commercial value through the year 2025. Nanomaterials was named one of the top 12 areas. The 2007 report, which defined nanotechnology as the creation of particles, fibers, films, coatings and other materials between 1 and 100 nanometers in size, said major accomplishments in nanotech will dramatically change "the materials and processes used to produce many of our consumer and industrial products."


While the revolution in electronics is the best example of nanotechnology at work, Robert Geer, associate professor of nanoscience at the University at Albany, State University of New York, says medicine and energy are other sectors especially open to innovation. Medical researchers could produce, for instance, a nanoparticle that attaches only to tumor cells to stop them from functioning or growing. "Before, people talked about targeted drugs," Geer says. "Now they're talking about targeted structures." As for energy, Albany is one of the universities partnering with private companies to research better ways of producing and storing power using nanotech.


Additional fields spotlighted in the Social Technologies report include construction (imagine a self-cleaning floor with an anti-microbial nanocoating); leisure goods (your tennis racket may already be reinforced with carbon nanotubes to make it stiffer and lighter); and consumer products (nanoparticles in sunscreen is one controversial application). "You'll see [nano-technology] creep into every product," predicts Schmergel.


Some entrepreneurs who are intrigued by the business possibilities of nanotech are turning to universities for a key resource: top-notch labs without top-notch prices. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network is a group of 13 university labs that are funded by the National Science Foundation and open to outside users. "We have users who spend $100,000 a year, but compared to the cost of setting up your own lab, that's a relatively small amount," says NNIN program director Lynn Rathbun. Labs at Cornell, Stanford, the University of Michigan and elsewhere provide equipment and experienced staff with whom you can discuss ideas.


Carbon Nanoprobes, for example, has used facilities at the University of Washington, Seattle. "We've been able to stay at the cutting technological edge. Without entrance into the state- and university-subsidized facilities, we'd have no way of doing that," Ruby says.


Even given the optimistic projections, nanotechnology isn't exactly synonymous with profit. Plenty of nanotech companies aren't yet earning revenue, and consumer acceptance may be an obstacle. Let's say some enterprising chemist could devise a nanotech treatment for fabric so it never stains. Think of the benefits for parents of young children: "When someone knocks over a cup, it won't ruin the couch," says Carmichael Roberts, a father, venture capitalist and co-founder of Nano-Terra, a nanotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that earned sales in the millions last year. But ask parents if they want their children to wear nanotechnology-altered pants, and they may very well balk. But Roberts, 40, predicts consumer misgivings will lessen over time.


Funding is also a complicated issue. Schmergel's company received more than $31 million in venture financing, but overall, he doesn't see the wave of funding for nanotech that was anticipated earlier in the decade. "The number of companies funded is still pretty small," he says. That's partly because of a lack of scientists to staff these companies, and partly because of the difficulty VC firms have in evaluating and deciding whether to fund the technologies.

Still, the excitement is such that a wider variety of people are getting interested in the field, including more women and even teens. The University at Albany focuses on the latter, Geer notes. "We're reaching out to middle school and high school students to say, 'It may look geeky, but it's actually cool.'"

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