HOUSTON, Nov. 5, 2002 — If all science involves identifying patterns, Jim Tour is flush with success. The Rice University star and founder of Molecular Electronics Corp. probably knows more than anyone else about the electrochemical patterns of nanocells, or regions where he and his team assemble molecules and nanoparticles.
The patterns are much like the man himself: quick, intense and compactly built. And like the cells, his capacity for processing and deploying information can be startling.
“A direct frontal assault on the silicon circuit industry is destined to fail,” he says flatly. “The world has spent too much time, money and effort developing and transferring the technology to the business arena.”
Tour founded MEC, a privately held company, in 1999 with the help of four other pioneering nanoscientists. Based in Hilton Head, S.C., it survived a rough infancy until Tour’s father introduced him to Christopher Gintz, who became president in April. He is MEC’s fourth president in three years.
“Startup companies are not for the faint of heart,” said Gintz, a seasoned entrepreneur who cut his teeth at Texas Instruments Inc. and Compaq.
In April, MEC obtained $550,000 in bridge financing to fund operations. Meanwhile, it continues to seek a first round of institutional backing. A news release announcing the deal also said MEC would “refocus its business model on direct commercialization.”
The bridge deal added to the $7.65 million provided by the original angel investors to launch the company, and $23 million in federal funding that went to individual researchers who contributed to MEC’s development.
At Rice, Tour’s academic title is longer than the Houston Ship Channel. He is Chao Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. Educated at Syracuse, Purdue, the University of Wisconsin and Stanford. He holds 17 U.S. patents.
All of which made catching him a coup for the university. The university spent about $17.5 million to build the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which contains 70,000 square feet of classroom and laboratory space. Not coincidentally, Neal Lane, science adviser to former President Clinton and an authority on nanoscience, also is at Rice.
At MEC, Tour and his colleagues are committed to the idea that someday nanocells can work alongside silicon to conduct electricity. The company has created molecular systems that show logic switch behavior, memory, and pathways for the transmission of electrons, with performance characteristics similar to silicon-based semiconductors.
As MEC co-founder Thomas Mallouk put it: “Imagine a computer that remembers every keystroke you’ve ever made, with more storage capacity than you could ever need.”
In the real world, the cost of building a silicon chip factory ranges upward to $2.5 billion. Intel, the country’s largest chipmaker, recently ran a full-page ad in The Economist that revealed the game’s extraordinarily high stakes. The ad praised Moore’s Law.
In 1965, Gordon Moore, an employee of Intel, created an informal law that became shorthand for the rapid growth of technology. He predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double every year — later amended to every 18 months.
“It’s still true today,” said the ad. “Intel’s newest technologies will soon allow us to squeeze a billion transistors on a chip. That’s not just serious science. It’s serious business.”
Tour counters with the fact that semiconductor memory underwent 13 price cuts in 2001. “They were selling memory for less than it costs to make it,” he said.
Asked what kind of projects he would invest in today, if he were an investor in nanotechnology, Tour said, “Based on the trends, nanomaterials seem like the most near-term winners,” especially in those instances “where the nano entity is merely playing a passive role in the functioning of the product.”
It was in a basement at Yale that he and research partner Mark Reed (a board member of MEC) first measured cell conductivity. Their research provided the basis for two basic components of molecular electronics, a molecular switch and a molecular memory.
In February, MEC announced it had partnered with Amphenol Corp. and launched a joint commercial evaluation of molecular electronic passive and active interconnects. The Connecticut-based company is one of the world’s leading producers of electronic and fiber optic connectors and cables. Its worldwide sales organization targets manufacturers of products for digital voice and data communications. Amphenol’s work in interconnectivity would give it a natural interest collaborating with MEC.