Fledgling nanotech firms struggle through “Valley of Death”

By Bob Haavind, Editorial Director

Opportunities may be limitless for the future of nanotechnology-based products, but for hundreds of startups, many of them at the NanoCommerce/NanoForum in Chicago in November(organized by Small Times, the NanoBusiness Alliance, and SEMI), reaching success will mean a lengthy struggle through what is being called the “Valley of Death.” While the potential may be great, it won’t help if the company’s money runs out before research turns into profitable products.

The nanotech gold rush isn’t surprising. The US has invested over $4 billion in R&D since FY01 through more than 30 agencies, including more than $1 billion in this year’s budget, explained Floyd Kvamme, chairman of the President’s Council on Science and Technology, in a keynote talk.

While about 1000 nanotech-related companies have been started, many large companies have put a toe in the water as well, often partnering with innovative small companies. “We work hard to develop partnering as a core competency,” commented Joe Cross, CEO of Nanophase Technologies, which works with giants such as BASF and Rohm & Haas, during a panel.

Nanotech startups typically go through three phases, according to Rick Snyder, CEO of investment firm Ardesta, and recently named chairman of Gateway. The academic phase springs for a revolutionary technology achievement that works once in the laboratory. A company is founded by the inventors with the expectation that “everyone will want one,” and the founders will get rich. This sometimes leads to a venture capital phase, with business people taking charge. The eventual goal is a sustainable fair profit stage, but this has to mean profits all along the food chain, including employees, customers, suppliers, and VCs, as well as the founders, Snyder pointed out. Decisions must be made about whether the company will make a component, subsystem, or system, and whether sales will be direct or through distributors or partners.

Achieving technical acceptance, even with a superior product, also can be challenging, according to Snyder. Even when the market develops, competition arises, margins shrink, and the company may have to face new revolutionary approaches.

Many of the tools and processes common to semiconductor and flat-panel display manufacturing are used to make nano-based products, explained Alan Rae, NanoDynamics VP, market and business development. His company makes titanium nanopowders that are packed around the core of golf balls, for example, cutting down the rotation causing a slice or hook, much like a skater throwing out the arms to slow down.

A Japanese company came to Buffalo, NY-based NanoDynamics looking for carbon nanotubes to improve panels it fabricated for major Japanese carmakers, according to CEO Keith Blakely. He initially told them the material would be too costly – then he ran into an engineer with a concept of using a steel mesh to collect carbon from burning hydrocarbon fuel. Blakely did a cost analysis and realized if the concept worked it would be cost-competitive. It did work, and another application has developed.

Such niche markets are only the earliest tip of a huge iceberg, suggested Vahe Sarkissian, chairman and CEO of FEI Co. The properties of materials change with size and shape in the 1-100nm range, so that new kinds of devices can be functionalized based on the new phenomena. But “tools make the difference,” he said, because they can control and observe the changes, and manipulate matter at the nanoscale. He pointed out that a strong tool sector had driven the US’ success in the semiconductor industry, partly through the efforts of Sematech, and could do the same in emerging nanotech markets.

Competitive factors in the data storage market have driven the industry into the nanozone even faster than the Moore’s Law vision in the chip sector, and Sarkissian believes that as the needed tools emerge, so will immense new opportunities. FEI’s Titan, using dual ion and electron beams, can now see individual atoms, but even that isn’t enough, he suggested. Instruments will be needed to probe subsurface features with ultrahigh resolution, such as in living cells.

In the semiconductor area, site-specific data is needed rapidly, so FEI is working on techniques to do what he calls a “wafer biopsy,” to quickly analyze a sample from a region of interest on a wafer surface.

As nanotechnology develops, Sarkissian feels that nanoresearch tools will become more industry specific. He sees the biggest potential markets eventually developing in life sciences, including pharmaceuticals, health care, and nanobiology.

Dan Kania, CEO of Veeco Instruments, agrees that the biggest markets may lie ahead in biotech. He showed numerous examples of uses for atomic-force microscopes (AFM), and said 3D imaging will become more critical as features shrink in chipmaking, such as sidewall angles, surface roughness, and line-edge roughness. Veeco is developing carbon nanotube tips for AFMs to work below the 45nm node.

Such delicate instruments will be needed in nanobiology, to probe bio-molecules in proteins, DNA, viruses, live cells, and other biomaterials, according to Kania. Pico-force AFMs will make measurements on single molecules, for example. But AFMs are sophisticated instruments that remain difficult to use, and as applications extend to nanomarkets, particularly in biology, simpler, more automated instruments will be needed, he said.

The conference started with a tribute to Richard Smalley, the Rice U. Nobel prizewinner for the invention of carbon fullerenes, or buckyballs, who passed away on Oct. 28. Although nanotech is still in its infancy, it already is touching every industrial sector, pointed out Kvamme. Based on pioneering R&D now going on all over the globe, it is expected to become one of the world’s largest high-tech industries in another decade. -B.H.


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.