Lookback: Steven Oldenburg, building on a solid foundation

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Mar. 2, 2005 — A good week for Steven Oldenburg goes something like this: First he learned that his infant startup beat out about 2,000 competitors to win a NASA award to develop a nanofluidic coolant system. Then he received an order to supply a researcher with nanoparticles for toxicology studies.

“We got our first sale and our first SBIR,” he said, referring to the Small Business Innovation Research award from NASA and the request from a team of toxicology experts to make nanoparticles for a study that is expected to help predict how nanomaterials interact with the body.

All that within four months of launching nanoComposix, a nanoparticle specialty company in San Diego that Oldenburg says will provide not only customized nanomaterials but also an intimate understanding of characteristics such as charge and stability. “That’s the differentiation,” he said. “These are things you need to know if you’re going to work with this stuff.”

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It’s all part of his pedigree. Oldenburg made his debut in Small Times in the September/October 2003 issue in a profile on Naomi Halas. Oldenburg worked with Halas on metallic nanoshells in the 1990s when he was an electrical engineering graduate student at Rice University. Under Halas’ tutelage, he learned how to make precisely designed composites and to appreciate how subtle differences alter nanoparticles’ properties and usefulness. Halas has since started a company of her own, Nanospectra Biosciences, which is developing gold nanoshells to detect and destroy tumors.

Oldenburg finished his graduate program in 1999 and went to Seashell Technologies in California, where he became familiar with the SBIR process. After five years there, he decided to try his luck as an entrepreneur by founding nanoComposix. He took the friends-and-family route for fund raising, bought lab equipment on eBay and found a facility that would share its lab space with him and three or four other workers.

NASA announced in November that it selected 219 companies from the 2,149 submissions it had received for its SBIR Phase 1 competition. It expected to divvy up more than $20 million for the proposals. Oldenburg said nanoComposix was in store to get about $70,000 to prove it could develop nanofluids for thermal control systems.

The goal is to design nanoparticles that absorb the heat and that remain suspended in liquid used as a coolant. Larger particles tend to settle and create possible clogging problems. If the Phase 1 is successful, nanoComposix will be eligible for a more lucrative Phase 2 award.

Programs like SBIRs serve as the lifeline for young startups, Oldenburg said. “They enable entrepreneurs to take an early-stage idea that venture capitalists would never fund.”

Getting sales revenue within the first months of existence will help the company as well. Its engineered nanoparticles will be used in a toxicology study at the University of Rochester. Funded through the Department of Defense, the project will allow researchers to develop models for predicting the toxicity of nanomaterials. Having a supplier who can provide a consistent product and who can double as a scientific liaison should facilitate the work.

Like his mentor Halas, Oldenburg has his mind set on an even more ambitious goal. Eventually he would like to develop multifunctional nanoparticles that offer dual properties, for instance, composites that add strength to a material while also trapping heat. Nanoshells serve as an optical beacon because they absorb and reflect near infrared light. When coated with proteins that bind to cancer cells, they can be used to identify tumors. But they also heat up when exposed to light, making them a therapeutic as well as a diagnostic tool.


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