Imago slings fastest microscope in the Midwest, maybe the world

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Feb. 10, 2003 — After gearing up at a sedate Wisconsin pace since 1994, Imago Scientific Instruments Corp. of Madison, Wis., has glided smoothly onto the fast track since receiving a $7 million seal of approval last fall from venture funders.

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Imago’s Local Electrode Atom Probe (LEAP) microscope analyzes materials atom by atom and produces detailed imaging and analysis in three dimensions.

Atom probe microscopes have been around for decades, but LEAP’s claim to fame is its blazing analytic speed — one million atoms per minute — and the fact that it can analyze semiconducting or nonconducting materials.

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Last fall, Imago sold its first microscope, a prototype, to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for more than $1 million, to be delivered at the end of April. Several other potential customers are considering a purchase, said Thomas F. Kelly, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Kelly also sees a market in magnetic storage and semiconductor companies, nanotechnology processes and biotech. “If we get the imaging capability for biological materials working, then the most obvious target is for drug discovery,” he said.

He said that right now it takes three months to build up a picture of proteins at the atomic level, but Imago’s LEAP might be able to do it in a week or just a few days. “It’s not going to be easy, but we have some good ideas on how to make that work.”

Mike Miller, senior research staff member in the microscopy and microanalytical sciences group in ORNL’s Metals and Ceramics Division, said a British company had been proposing to sell a similar microscope, but wasn’t ready. “That’s why we went with Imago.”

Miller’s team worked with Imago in developing the instrument, so he believes his lab is a good test market. “We’re very keen on the technique. It’s about the only thing that can solve the questions on material science,” he said.

Warren Packard, managing director of Imago’s lead venture funder Draper Fisher Jurvetson, said the fit between Imago and his firm was obvious.

“Our first reaction was, ‘My gosh, this is really, really cool! We don’t know anybody else doing this!’ As we did our research we found out it really is unique and talking to possible customers, we found there was a need for this.”

So far, Imago doesn’t have any competitors — not even, surprisingly, in Europe where the first atom probe microscopes were developed. But Kelly expects some eventually.

Barriers to entry are formidable — assembling the necessary expertise, and huge time and financial investments, but he believes several large Japanese companies that know instrumentation very well, such as Hitachi or Seiko, for example, could pull together an effort.

Researchers in England, France and Germany had the best microscope instrumentation in the 1990s, Kelly said, but Imago has uncovered a breakthrough technology and the Europeans have not mounted an effort on the same scale. “They don’t have the technology we have — nor the speed we can do.”


Company file: Imago Scientific Instruments Corp.
(last updated Feb. 10, 2003)

Imago Scientific Instruments Corp.

6300 Enterprise Lane
Madison WI 53719

Thomas Kelly, a professor of materials science and engineering, incorporated Imago in September 1999 to commercialize technology he had researched, developed and patented while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The company was founded as Millennium Instruments Inc. in 1994.

Scientific imaging and analytical equipment


Small tech-related products and services
Imago manufactures 3-D imaging and analytical equipment. The company’s Local Electrode Atom Probe (LEAP) microscope, which “zooms out” from the atomic level, offers speedy atom-by-atom visual information about materials. Such equipment is a key addition to universities, laboratories and fabrication facilities in areas including semiconductors, data storage, advanced materials and drug delivery.


  • Edward Kelly: president and chief executive officer
  • Thomas Kelly: chairman and chief technology officer
  • Sanjay Tripathi: chief operating officer
  • Tye Gribb: vice president of research and development
  • Jesse Olson: vice president of engineering
  • Selected strategic partners and customers
    Imago signed a $1 million instrument provision deal with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in fall 2002, with delivery scheduled for April 2003.

    Investment history
    Imago received $5 million in funding from individual investors in January 2000, followed by a $245,000 Technology Development Fund loan from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce in January 2001. Imago closed a $7 million venture round in September 2002. Key investors included: Draper Fisher Jurvetson (lead investor), Draper Triangle Ventures, Infineon Ventures and Stanford Management Co. (Stanford University). The company also garnered a $20,000 prize, shared with partner U-W Madison, for its first-place finish in Singapore Management University’s Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition in June 2002.

    Barriers to market
    There is a huge time and money expenditure associated with development and commercialization of this type of technology.

    None are working with the same technology, though firms such as Hitachi and Seiko have the potential to develop similar capabilities.

    Solve technical problems relating to detecting biomaterials at the atomic level.

    Why they’re in small tech
    CTO Thomas Kelly loves the combination of scientific research and bringing a product to market. But what keeps him there is the people he works with. “The group here is an extraordinary group. Monthly we make new progress. To a person they feel they are working on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on the cutting edge. It’s an exciting time for all of us.”

    What makes them smile
    After news about the venture funding was released, Imago officers fielded dozens of phone calls. One came from a man who sounded very knowledgeable, until he said he had an idea for communicating with the Nth Dimension.

    Relevant patent
    High mass resolution local-electrode atom probe

    Recent news
    Wisconsin nanotechnology startup gets $7 million boost


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  • Phone: 608-274-6880
  • Fax: 608-442-0622
  • E-mail: [email protected]

    — Research by Gretchen McNeely


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