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First Start-up Suite firms prepare to take nanotechnology to market

Every academic researcher hopes that his or her discoveries will break new ground. But only a small-though growing-number of Binghamton University faculty have worked to make that ground the foundation of a profitable business.

Howard Wang and C.J. Zhong have joined the ranks of Binghamton University researchers trying to build toward commercial success. Wang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has worked to perfect electronic inks, infused with nanomaterials, that could find their way into wallpaper computer screens or clothes that regulate body temperature. Zhong, an associate professor of chemistry, has developed nanoparticle-based sensor arrays that could someday monitor air for noxious chemicals, or check diabetics’ sugar levels without drawing blood.

Both recently started firms to bring their discoveries to market, and both new companies are getting a boost in Binghamton University’s Start-Up Suite.

Housed in the Innovative Technologies Complex, the Start-Up Suite offers fledgling companies low-cost office space, a state-of-the-art conference room, access to high-speed printers, copiers and other business equipment and a receptionist. Companies that occupy the Suite must have their roots in technology developed at the University and work in areas directly related to the life sciences.

Wang, vice president and chief scientific officer of NanoMas, founded the company in January with fellow researchers ZhihaoYang, president and chief technology officer, and Tom Xu, vice president and chief operating officer. The firm moved into the suite this fall, when Wang came to Binghamton from Michigan Technological University. His partners also are moving to Binghamton, soon to be joined by Sonny Zhang, director of business development.

The NanoMas team has developed efficient, cost-effective processes for manufacturing electronic inks made of silver and zine oxide nanoparticles suspended in liquid. The inks serve as conductors and semiconductors. Printing them onto thin, flexible substrate, manufacturers can mass produce circuitry much as a printing press cranks out newspaper sheets.

Along with paper-thin video screens and clothing that heats and cools as needed, these light, flexible electronics could form the basis for environmental sensors. They could also enable a new, less-expensive generation of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which manufacturers will embed in product packaging to help retailers manage inventory.

The urge to don the entrepreneur’s hat isn’t new to Wang and his colleagues: they’ve talked about founding a company for years, Wang said. “But we didn’t get excited enough to say, ‘If we don’t do it, it’s going to be too late.'”

Today, though, manufacturers that are developing machines to print electronic circuitry in high volume are getting ready to bring their products to market, probably by 2008. Once they do, demand for electronic inks will surge. So, for Wang and his colleagues, now is the time to make a move.

“We had our technology pretty much figured out,” Wang said. “We had to get out early and let people know they could test on our materials.”

Although many researchers are working on electronic inks, NanoMas’s nanoparticles are ideally suited to that application, Wang said. “For performance, smaller is definitely better, but smaller also means more unstable-difficult to make as well as difficult to use.” NanoMas has struck a balance between small and stable.

The researchers have also figured out how to control manufacturing costs so they can price their products attractively. “We invented an approach that is similar to making fertilizer or plastics, a large-scale wet chemistry approach, which can be scaled up,” Wang said.

Unlike Wang, Zhong only recently started to think about forming a business. Not that he hasn’t been keeping an eye on commercial applications for his work on nanotechnology. “The first question you want to ask in any research is, ‘Why is this interesting?'” he said. “Then the next question is, ‘Does it make money? What is the application?'”

Zhong’s research has produced several patents, and he has licensed some of those discoveries to industry. In the past, he and post-doctoral senior research associate Jin Luo sometimes talked about whether they should stick with that approach or try creating products on their own.

Then, the created the NSC Technology. Early this year, the Company obtained a $100,000 Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) feasibility study grant from the U.S Air Force to develop air quality sensors for aircraft cockpits.

That initial funding, plus an invitation to apply for a $750,000 Phase II SBIR grant to turn the prototype sensors into products, provided the spark for NSC Technology. Zhong and Luo founded the company in late 2005; Luo serves as its CEO.

NSC Technology takes advantage of the fact that nanomaterials react more sensitively to the presence of chemicals than the same materials at larger scale. Zhong’s lab has created chips containing nanoparticles of different metals and metal oxides, each of which emits an electronic signal when it comes in contact with a specific chemical.

Most sensors on the market today are designed to detect only one chemical at a time, Zhong said. But since people may need to monitor numerous substances in the air, these sensors aren’t as useful as they might be. “We believe we can design sensors that simultaneously target multiple chemicals,” he said.

Zhong collaborates with Susan Lu, assistant professor of systems science and industrial engineering, to package the chips in handheld devices with software to interpret the electronic signals, alerting the user to the presence of the target chemicals. A similar approach could produce a sensor that checks the breath of a diabetic person for acetone, a biomarker that indicates the level of glucose in the blood, Zhong said.

NSC Technology is also working with metals and alloys on the nanoscale to develop more durable, less expensive catalysts for use in fuel cells.

The market potential for both the sensors and the catalysts is strong, Zhong said. “People are concerned about the air they breathe. People worry about their future energy sources. I think we’re in the right business.”

In a short two-month period since NSC Technology presented its business vision and model in UNYTECH06 (Universities of Upstate New York Venture Forum 2006), it has been contacted by a number of investors. Discussions are underway to partner with economic development groups and service providers who have a vested interest in the entrepreneurial climate of Upstate New York.

While Wang and Zhong are the first pioneers to occupy the Start-up Suite, the possibility of moving into a well-appointed office environment, rather than searching for quality space off campus, is encouraging more faculty to enter the commercial world, said Eugene Krentsel, the University’s director of technology transfer and innovative partnerships.

If NanoMas were starting out on its own, it would have to settle for low-rent accommodations. “We probably would be in a garage,” Wang said. Instead, he and his partners have the space and technology they need to court potential investors, such as the venture capitalists from India, Shanghai and Silicon Valley who recently joined in a single conference call conducted from the Suite.

When faculty researchers decide to explore the commercial world, “we’re here to provide the services and facilities and advice they need to do that,” Krentsel said. Available services include help finding potential investors, dealing with intellectual property issues and scouting for space in the community when the time comes to expand. NanoMas worked with Terrence Kane, the University’s associate director of economic development and outreach, to locate the off-campus space where the company will soon set up a manufacturing facility.

With several other applications pending, the Start-up Suite is likely to fill in a couple of years, Krentsel said. “That’s much faster than anybody anticipated when we were designing this facility. University faculty have been developing companies in the last year at a greatly accelerated rate.”

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