June 2, 2003 — thinXXS Microtechnology sees the future in microstructured plastic.
The two-year-old German company says that its microinjection process produces components with structural details smaller than a micron. That could translate into microsystems made out of plastics, which cost less and can be made in larger volumes than glass or silicon.
The spinoff from the Mainz Institute for Microtechnology is lead by its general managers, Hans-Joachim Hartmann and Lutz Weber.
The company, with sites in Mainz and the town of Zweibrücken, sells microscope slides with 96 wells for fluorescence microscopy, microplates with upwards of 1,536 wells and integrated lab-on-a-chip systems.
But the company’s flagship product is a low-energy-driven microdiaphragm pump, the XXS2000, now in the evaluation stage and slated for volume production this year. The pump fits into a matchbox and weighs less than a pencil, and can pump from several microliters to 3 milliliters of liquid per minute. According to Marketing Manager Thomas Stange, the pump has a wide variety of potential applications, from drug delivery to microlubrication, and can be used in devices as diverse as household appliances and fuel cells.
He said it is also one of the few micropumps that is ready for market. “You can find dozens of pumps on the Web or at trade shows, but just try to buy one,” he said. “Usually the ones you see out there are just prototypes.”
The company produces about 100 of its pumps per month, but expects to sell a million a year when automated production gets off the ground.
“We can get the costs very low if the volumes are high,” said thinXXS Sales Manager Robert Pischler. “The price will be so low, in fact, people will begin to think of the pumps as disposable. The future market will be products which can be disposed of. That’s only possible with plastics.”
Professor Klaus-Peter Kämper at the Aachen University of Applied Sciences, said that while silicon micropumps show fewer signs of fatigue in the long run, developments in plastics technology are bringing the stability and reliability of plastic pumps close to that of their silicon relatives.
“What’s also interesting for the medical field is that there is now a whole series of plastics that are biocompatible,” he said. “Silicon isn’t.”
He said the potential market is big and predicts that as soon as mass production gets going, prices will drop to $1 or $2 per pump.
“Reliability has often been a problem with micropumps,” he said. “But I think firms are on the verge of solving that and we should see the pumps being adopted in a fairly large way by industry within five years or so.”
ThinXXS got off the ground in 2001 with the help of three investors: PRICAP Venture Partners AG, tbs Technologie-Beteiligungs-Gesellschaft mbH and the Wagnisfinanzierungsgesellschaft in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Their initial investment was $5.9 million, which might not sound like a lot, but sufficed for thinXXS because it had low capital needs. The company still uses the equipment and facilities of its parent, the Mainz Institute for Microtechnology.
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Founded in April 2001, thinXXS is a spinoff from the Mainz Institute for Microtechnology and uses that organization’s facilities and equipment, as well as maintaining production facilities in Zweibrücken.
Small tech-related products and services
The company uses a microinjection molding process to create components (microplates and micropumps) with structural details of less than 1 micron. This may lower the cost of microsystems manufacturing, which historically has depended on glass and silicon, and improve biocompatibility with lab materials.
thinXXS received initial funding of $5.9 million from PRICAP Venture Partners AG, tbs Technologie-Beteiligungs-Gesellschaft mbH and the Wagnisfinanzierungsgesellschaft in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Selected strategic partners and customers
thinXXS is partnering with Clemens GmbH, FRIZ Biochem GmbH, ibidi GmbH and the Fraunhofer Institute in an effort to create a “modular microfluidics construction kit” for the life sciences.
Barriers to market
As thinXXS grows, the company will need to create volume manufacturing methods that keep up with product demand while retaining a low per-unit cost.
“Right now, our major goal is to spread the word on how customers can profit from our expertise. In the longer term we will work hard to make thinXXS the synonym for microstructured systems made of plastic.”
Why they’re in small tech?
“Microsystem technology has such a broad scope. You can have it in medical technology, in automotive, in household appliances, the possibilities are just so vast. And being a young company, where would you go? Where you can make a profit. We think we can make a profit here.”
What keeps them up at night
“If a customer came up to us and said, ‘I need a million pieces this year.’ Right now we don’t want to go at such a fast pace. We don’t want to grow before the market does, we want to grow with it.”
– Research by Gretchen McNeely