Yet in the midst of all that, there is a promise for the future in the collaboration by California’s university research centers, small companies and venture finance firms in an emerging area called nanotechnology.
Working with materials that are a thousandth the diameter of a human hair, nanotechnology companies do not produce finished products in any one industry. Rather, nano particles improve performance and open new possibilities in activities as varied as water purification, biomedicine, battery power, environmental repair and agriculture.
The universities have been essential in this development process. In some cases, they make direct equity investments in start-up companies. Other times, universities grant licenses to their research and give small companies access to expensive laboratory equipment in return for user fees. And some universities have set up incubators where small companies develop technological products and processes.
Why are universities investing scarce budget cash in start-up companies? “Partnerships with private industry are a way of making this new technology available for public benefit,” said Leonard H. Rome, interim director of the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Also, in times of strained budgets, such partnerships bring needed funds. The NanoSystems Institute, Mr. Rome said, “has attracted more than $350 million in research and development grants from industry.”
Moreover, the new nanotechnology industry demands interdisciplinary collaboration. “The medical school needs to be collaborating with the engineering school,” said Mr. Rome, who is also senior associate dean of research at the university’s School of Medicine. In fact, the institute was first authorized in 2000 as part of a $100 million grant from the state of California to spur university research.
Examples from several universities and fledgling companies demonstrate the potential. NanoH2O Inc., for instance, uses nano materials to improve the performance of reverse osmosis membranes in making dirty water clean or in desalination. Two years ago, the company licensed the membrane research of Eric Hoek, a professor of environmental engineering at U.C.L.A. Then it leased lab space in the NanoSystems Institute, which opened in 2007, because being at U.C.L.A. allowed the company to use expensive electron microscopes and other equipment.
“Being able to use the core facilities of the university couldn’t help but accelerate our progress,” said Jeff Green, chief executive of NanoH2O. It also helped attract $20 million in venture capital from Oak Investment Partners and Khosla Ventures. Now, NanoH2O is moving to a factory where it can manufacture membranes composed partly of nano-size elements of alumina and silicon. The membranes filter out salts and impurities yet allow water to flow faster, thus saving energy in desalination or water reuse processes.
Matrix Sensors Inc. is a new tenant at the NanoSystems Institute. The company is developing nano membranes that are so sensitive to resonance they can detect molecules of bacteria as well as proteins and DNA and thus diagnose early stages of illness. Matrix Sensors is working on licensed research of three professors, James K. Gimzewski of U.C.L.A., and Calvin F. Quate and Butros T. Khuri-Yakub of Stanford University. U.C.L.A. and Stanford have invested in the company, along with Miramar Venture Partners of San Diego, which has put in $1 million. That is a sign, said Michael Cable, chief executive of Matrix, that investors, even in the recession, are supporting nanotechnology.
QuantumSphere Inc., in Santa Ana, Calif., is approaching nanotechnology on a broad scale by making an array of catalysts that allow batteries to operate for longer periods, electronic displays to be manufactured at lower costs and ammonia fertilizers to be produced using less energy while also generating less carbon dioxide.
“It’s not a question of making nano materials alone but what applications are you using nano for,” said Kevin D. Maloney, president of QuantumSphere, a seven-year-old company that got its start with $100,000 investment from two angel investors: Jon Faiz Kayyem, a trustee of California Institute of Technology, and Marc H. Goroff, who has a doctorate from Caltech and is the founder of several companies.
The reason infinitesimal nano particles can give batteries more power is, paradoxically, “that at the nano stage there are more atoms available on the surface of a molecule proportionate to its volume, so there are more active atoms to store and release electricity,” said Douglas Carpenter, co-founder and senior science adviser of QuantumSphere. Mr. Carpenter designed rocket fuel for aerospace companies for many years and helped invent Quantum’s nano catalysts.
“At the nano level, elements change their properties,” Mr. Carpenter explained. Aluminum, for instance, cannot burn at micron levels, or one millionth of a meter, but burns and gives off an intensely glowing light at nano levels, or one billionth of a meter. QuantumSphere gets to do research on powerful microscopes and other equipment at the University of California, Irvine, paying fees to the university for each use. It has raised $17 million from private equity and venture funds, including $2 million from OM Group Inc., a specialty chemicals company based in Cleveland.
In an example of global collaboration, Rachid Yazami, research director of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, has done his work on battery technology since 2000 at Caltech. He is co-founder along with a Caltech professor, Robert H. Grubbs, of CFX Battery Inc., of Azusa, Calif., which makes lithium ion batteries that can power electric cars, medical devices, mobile phones and computers. The technology transfer office at Caltech invested in CFX and helped raise $15 million to get the company started.
“But lithium is expensive and coming into short supply,” Mr. Yazami said. So he is trying to develop a battery powered by nano particles of sodium and water. “You know the work of Jules Verne,” Mr. Yazami asked, referring to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” “He wrote of using seawater as a battery.”
By JAMES FLANIGAN
Published: July 15, 2009