By Robert O’Connor
Small Times Correspondent

March 5, 2002 — A Dublin-based nanotechnology company hopes to challenge the dominance of liquid crystal in the $18 billion on-screen display market.

NTera Ltd., a spinoff from University College Dublin, has entered into an agreement with U.K.-based Densitron Technologies plc to promote its NanoChromics display technology. NTera said that its technology will create paper-quality displays for commercial applications. Densitron will manufacture the units.

“Our vision,” said Roy Davis, NTera’s chief executive, “is to be one of the leading


NTera’s technology relies on nanostructured film
electrodes. The large surface area of the film
accommodates massive numbers of electrochromic
viologen molecules, which combine to promote both
high-quality color and very fast switching speeds.
The use of titanium dioxide as a reflector gives the
display its paper-like quality.
suppliers of nanomaterial-based products and processes to the information, health and energy sectors.”

Davis expects the flat panel display market to be worth $40 billion globally in 2005. He said that liquid crystal displays now account for about 80 percent of the market.

NTera’s technology, Davis said, is suitable for such applications as signboards, advertising billboards, supermarket shelf displays, e-books and medical testing. He added that the technology will also mesh well with smart cards.

Nick How, technical director for Densitron Europe, in Biggin Hill, England, said that his company was impressed by the progress that NTera had made in the areas of speed, stability and the potential for production. Electrochromics, How noted, are hardly new, having largely been pushed aside by liquid crystal displays about 30 years ago. The technology, How said, has continued to serve limited uses — notably in automatic dimming devices, where high speed is not a consideration.

How said that the switching speed NTera has achieved makes the technology feasible for a wide range of applications. NTera, he said, is getting speeds of four to five times a second. Eventually, Densitron would like to see speeds of 25 milliseconds. Continued progress, How said, will depend on improvements in electronic drive circuits, an area in which Densitron is working. “That is an even more immature part of the equation at the moment,” How noted.

NTera and Densitron are visiting potential customers, looking for end-users with an interest in applying the technology. Davis expects the production of some display applications to begin in the second half of this year. NTera anticipates getting revenue, in the form of codevelopment payments, late in the first half of this year or early in the second half. Davis does not expect to see royalty-type payments for at least another 12 months. He would not discuss expected revenue levels.

“We’re very focused on generating revenue and getting a path to profitability,” Davis said.

NTera was founded in 1997 and was formerly known as Nanomat Ltd. Davis said that the company is open to the possibility of acquiring companies that make complementary technologies, either in Europe or the United States. “We’re actively looking at funding,” he said. “And I think likely in the 18 to 24 months, we would certainly consider the public markets.”

Davis sees particular potential for the NTera’s display technology in advertising. He said that billboards could, for instance, be controlled remotely, and instantly. Crews would no longer have to be dispatched on a regular basis to paste up new messages. “That fundamentally changes the structure of the industry,” Davis said.

Davis is also optimistic about prospects in medical testing, where, he said, NTera’s use of nanoparticles will allow the results of tests to be seen very clearly. The technology also promises to enable a medical worker to conduct multiple tests from a single drop of blood, without sending the sample to a laboratory. This is of obvious benefit in such areas as allergy screening.

Davis said that the global market for diagnostic health care is now worth about $20 billion.

NTera’s technology relies on nanostructured film electrodes and the tendency of electrochromic materials to change color under electrical influence. The large surface area of the film accommodates massive numbers of electrochromic viologen molecules, which combine to promote both high-quality color and very fast switching speeds. The use of titanium dioxide as a reflector gives the display its white, paper-like quality. Titanium dioxide is used in the manufacture of paper. The ink-like look is produced by colored viologens. The display offers the further advantage of running at low voltage, saving on operating costs.

Davis said that NTera has received $13.5 million from two venture capital firms — Radnor, Pa.-based Cross Atlantic Capital Partners and London-based Evolution Capital. Private investors are also involved. NTera, Davis said, has about 35 employees, in Dublin and in Lausanne, Switzerland.

NTera’s goal, Davis said, is to create specific applications for partners and earn its revenues through codevelopment, master payments, license fees and royalties. “It may well be at some stage in the future we make something,” he said.

Davis said that the technology is also suited for use in batteries, to replace lithium iron. In 2001, Davis said, NTera acquired Lausanne-based Xoliox, which is involved in this sector. “We’re trying to work with partners to ramp up the volume,” Davis said.

Alan Mosley, U.K.-based director of the U.K. and Ireland chapter of the Society for Information Display, noted the attention the new display technology has been getting lately. “Electronic ink is a buzzword,” Mosley said.

Mosley suggested that the prospects for NTera to succeed in the high-value markets might depend on its ability to gain access to active matrix technology, which allows for production on a vast scale. Densitron, Mosley noted, uses passive matrix technology, which is more limited in its output. But the expense of active matrix, Mosley said, means that it is available only to the very largest companies. An active matrix manufacturing plant costs between $500 million and $1 billion to build.

Over the last quarter of a century, Ireland has developed a reputation as a center for the information technology industry. Computer companies and software manufacturers, mainly from the United States, have been lured in by grants, tax breaks and the opportunity to sell into the European Union, of which Ireland is a member. How does not regard Ireland’s as a special advantage. But he does see Ireland’s proximity to Britain as a plus. “It’s nice to have some grass-roots technology on your doorstep rather than having to go halfway around the globe to get it,” he said.

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