NanoVia shapes its own success with a laser-like focus

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LONDONDERRY, N.H., Sept. 22, 2003  — Sure, every company is supposed to focus on its business opportunity with laser-like intensity. At NanoVia Inc., however, they take that saying literally.

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The company’s expertise is simple enough: drilling extremely small holes into extremely small objects. Using a patented technology that employs the same type of optics used to make holograms, NanoVia fires powerful lasers at microstructures to sculpt them into carefully aligned vias or other shapes.

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Vias are the tiny pathways that allow electrons to travel from one part of a MEMS device to another, or to allow various MEMS components to fit together.

Talent with a laser is a valuable skill in small technology, and it has led to a raft of business opportunities for the seven-man shop. NanoVia works with a Hitachi Inc. subsidiary to bolt microchips onto computers; it collaborates with health researchers to make micro-nozzles for inhalable drugs. The company even has a grant from the state of California to explore the idea of stamping serial numbers onto bullets as they are fired from a gun.

Todd Lizotte, vice president of R&D for NanoVia, says the strategy has been to focus on a strong technology platform of laser-based micro machining — then strike partnerships with other groups that had a specific application in mind. The company now has several million in revenues annually and has been profitable for most of its four-year history.

“We focus on our core,” Lizotte explains, “not the nuts-and-bolts stuff you can get anywhere.”

Using lasers to sculpt microstructures is common enough. NanoVia’s twist is in the technology of the laser itself. Its device uses diffractive optics, rather than the more common refractive optics. Diffraction is harder to manage because light particles scatter in several directions. But when properly corralled into one beam, it delivers more photons to the target than refraction, consequently taking less time to make more precise structures.

Orest Ohar, NanoVia’s head of engineering, said diffraction lets NanoVia operate its lasers at frequencies of 40 KHz or more, much higher than the standard 15Khz. That extra energy lets the laser carve a target more quickly. Still, he conceded, most engineers “don’t want to worry about what they believe to be the problems of diffractive optics.”

Mike Rodgers, principal engineer with Optical Research Associates in Pasadena, said NanoVia’s diffractive approach lets it make large volumes of products essentially by stamping the shape onto components quickly.

“It just takes special design and has to be manufactured well,” said Rodgers, who helped perfect the design for NanoVia. “If you can make it work, diffractive can be very rewarding.”

One example, and a prime source of business for NanoVia, is the microchip. As chip size increases from 200mm to 300mm, those larger chips require many more vias to bolt the chip to its packaging — around 8,000 vias for an old Pentium II, versus 40,000 vias for a cutting-edge Itanium today.

NanoVia demonstrated its technology to Hitachi Via Mechanics in the spring of 2000. Hitachi quickly signed on as an anchor customer, licensing the technology to drill holes 20 to 70 microns wide so it can bolt larger chips onto motherboards.

“The market that turned out to be most ready for us was the microvia,” Lizotte said. The company quickly leveraged that business to explore other markets.

In the life sciences, NanoVia works with a research group funded by the National Institutes of Health to develop a device that will let people inhale drugs much like asthmatics do now. NanoVia makes the nozzles that will dispense drugs one molecule at a time, so they can flow deeper into the lungs and reach the bloodstream more quickly. The nozzles are 1 to 3 microns wide, etched on a plate in formations of 100 to 1,000. 

NanoVia also dabbles in waveguides, inkjet nozzles and other markets. One intriguing application is the ballistic “NanoTag,” where lasers etch a gun’s serial number onto its firing pin. When the gun is fired, the pin imprints that serial number onto a bullet’s shell casing — giving police an easy way to identify what gun was used at a shooting.

Lizotte and Ohar, who say they are firearms hobbyists, add the NanoTag letters are only 20 microns tall. For just about every bullet on the market today, Ohar says, that leaves “a lot of room to put information in there.”

NanoVia is in a pilot program now with the California Department of Justice to test the NanoTags. Lizotte said preliminary results should be available by January.


Company file: NanoVia Inc.
(last updated Sept. 8, 2003)

NanoVia LP 

4 Delta Drive, Unit 6
Londonderry, NH 03053

Formed in July 1999, NanoVia introduced its first product in April 2000 and established a licensing partnership with Hitachi Via Mechanics in May 2001.

Laser micro-engineering equipment


Small tech-related products and services
With proprietary diffractive optic technology similar to that used for creating holograms, NanoVia develops and manufactures laser-based microvia equipment and technology. The company offers both turnkey solutions and technology licensing.

Applications for NanoVia’s technology include: microchips, nozzles, waveguides, and potentially “nanotags”, which could place extremely small labels on items such as bullets for identification purposes.

Todd Lizotte: co-founder and vice president of research & development
Orest Ohar: co-founder and head of engineering

Investment history
Investors in NanoVia include a group of former Microsoft executives.

Selected strategic partners and customers

  • Hitachi Via Mechanics
  • State of California

Selected competitors

  • Electro Scientific Industries
  • Aguila Technologies
  • Anvik Corporation
  • Clark-MXR
  • Exitech
  • Gateway Laser Services
  • GSI Lumonics

Barriers to market
NanoVia must convince engineers that diffractive optic-based systems will not prove to be more unwieldy or difficult to use than refractive optic technology.

Relevant patents
Control system for ablating high-density array of vias or indentation in surface of object

Tel: 603-421-0713
Fax: 603-421-0214
Email: [email protected]

Research by Gretchen McNeely


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