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SPIE Professional July 2008

Nanotech U & You

Universities can offer big-time help to entrepreneurs moving nanotechnology to market.

By Beth Kelley

Getting a new nanotechnology company off the ground can be a challenge even for a seasoned entrepreneur. For many early career professionals and university faculty trying to move their ideas to market, however, help is not far away. Optics and photonics entrepreneurs, especially those working with nanotechnologies, are increasingly finding that universities can help them build new products and take big ideas to market.

Getting Knowledge Out

One of the more traditional ways universities assist potential entrepreneurs is by helping their employees patent product and technology ideas. Almost all universities have technology transfer offices (TTOs) to file patents, find funding, and help university employees get their products and technologies to market.

The University of California Davis (UCD) Innovation Access group is an especially hands-on TTO, assisting professors, employees, students, and other university affiliates at every step of the entrepreneurial process. Meg Arnold, director of business development and entrepreneurship at UCD, says there are several parts to Innovation Access' mission, ranging from protecting intellectual property to identifying and negotiating funding to executing business plans.

Figure 1. John Argo and Ruxandra Vidu of Bloo Solar with a 50,000-times magnified model of their solar "nanobrush" technology. This dramatically increases the surface area of solar cells. The technology developed by Bloo Solar is partly based on discoveries made at UC Davis.

One company that UCD Innovation Access helped is Bloo Solar (formerly Q1 Nanosystems), an ultrathin-film renewable solar energy company. Bloo's Solar Brush™, a photovoltaic product that uses billions of vertically grown nano cables to increase the total photovoltaic surface area by up to 12 times more than other thin-film products, started out in a UCD lab. The Innovation Access group helped Bloo win several grants for its solar PV product, including $100,000 from the National Science Foundation for nanostructured materials surfacing.

Bringing Knowledge In

Another way that universities help new entrepreneurs is by renting lab space to small companies. At least 13 U.S. universities with nanotech laboratories are hiring themselves out to businesses, according to the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), an organization anchored by Cornell and Stanford Universities and funded in part ($14 million a year) by the NSF to help facilitate these relationships. Universities must give up some use of their lab space and do not get royalties from the business work done there, but both universities and companies say the benefits outweigh any drawbacks.

Though Bloo Solar is now large enough to have its own wet lab, John Argo, co-founder and COO, says the company still rents lab space at UCD, Stanford, or University of California Berkeley. Argo says the main advantage of using university labs is the ability to experiment more with procedures and equipment. "It allows us to figure out exactly what equipment we need to use," he says. "If there are five different ways to fabricate something, it's good to try out different ways before you decide."


Figure 2. A researcher from International SEMATECH inside a 300mm wafer cleanroom at the University of Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

Even with hands-on guidance of patenting a product, finding the initial venture capital, and offering lab space to small businesses, entrepreneurs still are often left with gaps between an idea and a viable product. Finding second-round funding, determining costs, and conducting market research can be daunting to any entrepreneur.

Fortunately, many universities are filling that gap by expanding their TTOs or creating entirely new programs to help support small and startup businesses.

The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE, or NanoCollege) of the University at Albany (NY) has implemented a pioneering research/business integration model between universities and entrepreneurs. Established in 2004, CNSE strives to support the technology commercialization process, from concept to product to startup company and market, according to Michael Fancher, assistant vice president for economic outreach and business development at CNSE.

The NanoCollege is currently working with more than 250 companies around the world, providing intellectual and technological know-how to help spur new innovations in nanotechnology materials, equipment, and applications. CNSE is also working to lower the cost and risk for companies to develop and commercialize nanotechnology in a variety of applications.

Along with providing business expertise, universities have easier access to grants and other funding and can even provide direct funding to startups through internal grants.

Earlier this year, for example, the Materials Research Institute of the Pennsylvania State University awarded an Industrial Incentive Grant to Carbon Nanoprobes Inc. (CN Probes). The grant funding will help complete the development and launch of CN Probes' flagship product, a carbon nanotube probe tip for the atomic force microscope.

University backing of a small company is also appealing to venture capitalists. Universities can help foster relationships between venture capitalists and startups, according to both Arnold and Fancher.

Applied Nanoworks is another example of how universities and nanotech entrepreneurs are teaming up for big results. The Albany-based company, which produces quantum dots that stay suspended in liquid, worked closely with CNSE throughout its development.

"We started with two core technologies licensed from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and then developed the manufacturing processes within the company for large-scale reliable manufacturing of various materials, keeping product economics in mind," says Partha Dutta, associate professor at RPI and chief technical officer at Applied Nanoworks. By working with both RPI and CNSE, the company was able to expand its technology portfolio and focus on making a marketable product, Dutta says.

"CNSE, in particular, helped us in evaluating our chemical-mechanical planarization (CMP) materials for potential commercial applications in the semiconductor industry. They also helped us benchmark our products with existing commercial products that could potentially target niche applications in the near future," Dutta says.

Ready for Anything

Even with help, young companies and early career professionals can still struggle with the leap from initial product to viable company. "There is a huge gap between the laboratory invention to the actual market penetration," Dutta says.

Real-life applications and restrictions also can affect the direction of the product. Argo says the product he originally created in the lab is quite different from the product Bloo Solar ended up manufacturing. "But that's a natural part of development," he says. "What you think you're making isn't exactly what you're making at the end."

So what can aspiring entrepreneurs do to prepare themselves?

Argo and Arnold both advise consulting with a university TTO for legal advice and the next appropriate steps in the business process.

"Do all the homework—cost of manufacturing, reliability, potential market competition and products out there—before forming the company," Dutta says. "Having two prototypes done before attracting investment for commercialization will save enormous time, energy and money."

By working together, universities and entrepreneurs can make larger technological and entrepreneurial leaps and bounds than going it alone.

Universities Benefit, Too

It's true that universities can get royalties from any product they help launch or license. But there are other benefits for supporting entrepreneurship. Helping launch companies is a benefit not only for a university but also for its hometown. Meg Arnold of the University of California Davis Innovation Access group points out that patenting products and bringing them to market "are corollary missions that involve supporting economic regional development."

Along with supporting emerging nanotechnology companies located throughout New York State, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at the University of Albany is encouraging networks among nanotechnology businesses to the point of "in-sourcing" companies. Vistec Lithography, for example, moved its entire operation from Cambridge, UK, to New York in 2007 and set up its R&D center at CNSE and manufacturing in nearby Watervliet, NY, to gain better access to equipment and other resources and to network with New York companies.

In turn, when universities support business and development in their regions, they also promote education and careers in science and raise the visibility of their schools.

"We see our mission as multi-faceted," says Michael Fancher of CNSE. One facet is "to educate tomorrow's workforce-not just the PhD scientist‑but to engage our children to consider careers in math and science as a means of addressing a crisis that cuts across North America."

International Opportunities

The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) is involved in an international global consortium designed to accelerate the adaptation and implementation of renewable energy technologies around the world: the International Renewable Energy Technology Institute (IRETI). Other IRETI participants chosen are University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, the State University System of Minnesota, and Sweden.

In Europe, the Advanced Components Cooperation for Optoelectronics Research and Development (ACCORD) is an experimental program funded under the Sixth Framework Programme of the European Union. Its purpose is to match companies with students and researchers who can evaluate the potential applications and markets for new photonic devices. By purchasing "pre-competitive" devices and putting them in the hands of researchers and students, at no net cost to the companies or the universities, ACCORD is helping companies access new markets and new applications. Thirteen European companies offered 15 devices for university researchers to evaluate this spring.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at SPIEprofessional@spie.org.

Beth Kelley

Beth Kelley is an SPIE staff editor. 

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200807.04

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