Nanosurf finds easy-to-use AFMs could be nanotech’s Big Kahuna

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ZURICH, May 27, 2003 — A trip to Mars was the reason Nanosurf AG came into being.

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About seven years ago, Nanosurf’s founders were working at the same University of Basel lab that collaborated with IBM to make the world’s first scanning tunneling microscopes. The lab was well known abroad, so when NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor mission needed a small, easy-to-operate microscope in a hurry, they went to Switzerland.

NASA needed an atomic force microscope (AFM) to test dust storm particles to see how small and sharp they were before sending any humans there. The AFM had to be supercompact and light, yet robust. The successful design later became the prototype for Nanosurf’s commercial products.

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The six-year-old company, headquartered on the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland, makes AFMs and other instruments that allow users to see on the nanoscale. Its customers are typically university research labs, but quality control groups in manufacturing companies are beginning to acquire its products.

For example, one of the last places you might expect nanoscale technology to be important would be the ballpoint pen sitting on your desktop. And yet in order to get a nice, smooth flow and an even ink line, the ball’s surface must have a precise level of roughness, between 2 and 10 nanometers. To ensure the surfaces are made to its high standards, Precision Writing Balls SA, based in Cadempino, Switzerland, uses Nanosurf’s AFM for quality control.

Other users are titanium implant makers and semiconductor manufacturers. Also, the food packaging industry uses the instruments to measure coating homogeneity on plastic foils that are used to protect food from exposure to air.

“Nanosurf was one of the first firms to take a bulky, difficult-to-operate system, and make it into something user friendly and portable,” said Michele de Lorenzi, of Swiss Technology Consulting Group AG, a high-tech research company based in Zurich.

What does it mean to have an easy-to-use AFM? “You lower the microscope close to the sample and push a single button. The system automates the rest to start imaging,” said Mark Flowers, chief executive of Nanoscience Instruments Inc., the Phoenix, Ariz., firm that recently won the rights to distribute Nanosurf’s products in the United States.

Not all science is done in the lab, said Flowers, explaining why a portable AFM is needed. The Nanosurf AFM can be used when checking for defects, surface quality, or roughness on materials and coatings in a process, without taking the material back to the lab.

According to a recent issue of The Industrial Physicist, there are more than 20 suppliers of microscopes for characterizing at the nanoscale. Prices vary, features differ, but most have similar designs. Nanosurf’s AFM, Flowers said, looks and works differently from the rest.

In fact, it looks like a golden hockey puck on legs and is attached to a notebook computer. Normally an AFM is a bulky, lab bench-size device attached to a desktop PC.

Its price is very competitive. “Even the new AFMs coming out of Korea are more expensive than the Swiss-made ones,” Flowers said.

Its canny compact construction and design is what enables its low price. Despite the company’s location in Switzerland, which has one of the highest labor costs in the world, Nanosurf’s instruments are less expensive than competitors’, not due to lesser “quality or resolution,” said Flowers, but more to do with “the way they build it.”

“We are growing,” said co-founder Robert Sum. “Demand for the STM (scanning tunneling microscope) and AFM in the educational market is climbing. Plus demand for some of our other products surprised us. Researchers that are using ultrahigh vacuum scanning tunneling microscopes are asking for our electronics to detect and track the data. They might buy the microscopes elsewhere but they are using our electronics to analyze the signals.”

Nanosurf has taken on no venture capital investors and expenditures are kept to a minimum by outsourcing the manufacturing to local Swiss companies while delivering parts to makers of highly precise instrumentation. Testing, final packaging and documentation support is done at its headquarters.

Its first product was a scanning tunneling microscope that is now widely used at universities across Europe and beyond as an educational tool. Since then, it has been coming out with a new product line every year or so.

Its newest is a dynamic force microscope. The magnetically driven DFM increases the functionality of the company’s AFM. It is also used to test and measure surfaces and coating consistency.


Company file: Nanosurf AG
(last updated May 27, 2003)

Nanosurf AG

Grammetstrasse 14
CH-4410 Liestal

Nanosurf, founded in 1997, is a spinoff from the University of Basel laboratory, which is well-known for its strength in scanning probe microscopy research.

Microscopy and positioning devices


Small tech-related products and services
Nanosurf has developed the easyScan STM (scanning tunneling microscope) system, the easyScan AFM (atomic force microscope) system and the easyScan DFM (dynamic force mode) system. These microscopes aid in surface characterization, study of thin films and defect analysis. The company has also developed a sensor controller and digital FM detector unit that can work as stand-alone tools or partner with Nanosurf microscopes to help users achieve target resonance frequency. Key users of Nanosurf’s technology are research labs and manufacturing quality control groups.


  • Lukas Howald: chief executive officer, co-founder
  • Robert Sum: sales and support, co-founder
  • Dominik Brändlin: software and electronics, co-founder
  • Loris Scandella: marketing and research
  • Revenues
    Approximately $1 million in 2002.

    Selected strategic partners and customers

  • Nanoscience Instruments Inc.: U.S. distributor
  • Precision Writing Balls SA: customer
  • Barriers to market
    A key challenge for Nanosurf is Veeco’s domination of the atomic force microscopy market. There are roughly 20 other competitors to monitor as well.

    Selected competitors

  • Veeco Instruments Inc.
  • WITec
  • Pacific Nanotechnology Inc.

    Selected patents
    Electronic frequency measuring device and its use
    Multiaxis actuator and measuring head, especially for a scanning probe microscope

    Recent articles
    Swiss-made AFM launched in North America
    Swiss successes lead to more government money for nanotech


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  • Phone: 41-61-927 56 46
  • Fax: 41-61-927 56 47
  • — Research by Gretchen McNeely


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