FRANKLIN, Mass., Feb. 9, 2004 — Joseph Piche is a garrulous man for someone who can’t really talk about his work.
Ask how business is going at Eikos Inc., the company Piche founded in his basement in 1996, and the answer might involve a two-hour conversation that meanders from the conductivity of carbon nanotubes to sci-fi films to the merits of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
Yet amid a flurry of caveats that most of Eikos’ work hides behind nondisclosure agreements, Piche will hint — obliquely, of course — that his business of developing transparent, conductive coatings is going quite well.
What do we know? Eikos has a method of purifying carbon nanotubes and dispersing them into polymers; those conductive polymers are useful in devices such as flat-panel displays or solar panels; and Eikos is working with more than 30 customers or partners to see how such nanotube coatings might improve everything from solar panels to handheld computers.
On that final point, Piche does talk. His confident prediction: “The competition is toast.”
The “competition” is indium tin oxide (ITO), the dominant coating for transparent conductors today. ITO is cheap and effective, but it is also brittle and only works on hard surfaces. Eikos’ coatings can be sprayed onto a surface like ink, in far thinner and more flexible layers. That makes them suitable for plastics and other substances, where ITO would crack.
In January, Eikos licensed its technology to Takiron Co. Ltd., a Japanese supplier of polymer materials for various Asian electronics manufacturers. Eikos’ first licensing deal, Piche considers it pivotal to his attempt to crack the display-screen market. Analysts estimate the worldwide market for display screens at $4.5 billion in 2003, with an annual growth rate of 57 percent through 2007.
The partnership “provides strong channels to Asian markets,” Piche says. “Equally important, Takiron had the vision to recognize the importance of this disruptive new technology.”
A chemical engineer by profession, Piche declines to comment about much of Eikos’ technology. The company buys nanotubes in bulk and extracts the single-walled tubes to use as conductors. It then coaxes them to self-assemble into ropes and larger sheets, and evenly disperses them into the polymer.
The inks can achieve surface resistivity of 300 ohms per square centimeter — as Piche boasts, “really stinking good.” He will not say how diluted the inks are (the fewer the nanotubes, the more transparent the coating), nor precisely how the inks are sprayed onto a surface. He does confirm that a vacuum chamber is not necessary, as ITO requires.
Eikos’ inks do not equal the conductivity of ITO, but given their other properties, the company says, they come close enough. “They’re multifunctional,” says David Arthur, Eikos’ chief operating officer. “They are not only conductive but have some other function, which together is very difficult for the competition to deliver.”
Nanotech industry analysts say Eikos’ claims sound impressive, but the proof will be in delivery on a mass-manufacture scale. Samuel Brauer, with BCC Inc., said the challenge so far has been blending nanotubes evenly into polymers and then spreading the mixture — sometimes less than 1 micron thick — onto a surface.
“It has not been easy,” Brauer says. “Lab samples are one thing, but can you put that polymer onto something without destroying your nanotubes?”
Anthony Despotakis at SRI Consulting questioned whether nanotube-based conductors can really be a cost-effective alternative to ITO, which only costs pennies per gram. In the display screen market, for example, “they have to be very market competitive.”
Despotakis added that many manufacturers are satisfied with ITO for their products, and might see no advantage in retooling their processes for nanotube inks. Engineers also keep trying to make components that need no conductive coatings at all.
Piche launched the business as a consultant for the U.S. Army; his first hire, Paul Glatkowski, today is Eikos’ head of engineering. In their first year the two landed seven research contracts worth $1.2 million, and Eikos was incorporated.
The company started working with carbon nanotubes several years ago, when it won a government grant to explore how nanotubes could serve as electromagnetic shielding for Army Humvees. That led to Eikos’ first product, Nanoshield, a coating used as shielding for EMI or electro-static discharge. Piche and Glatkowski then realized carbon nanotubes could also work with transparent conductors.
“It all fit together,” Piche said.
2 Master Drive
Franklin, MA 02038
Joseph Piche founded Eikos in 1996, selecting a name that that gave a nod to the ancient Greeks’ concept of probability.
Military transportation, defense, energy, consumer products
Small tech-related products and services
Eikos develops carbon nanotube-based “inks” for use in transparent conductive coatings and circuitry. Their Invisicon™ conductive nanowire and coating technology has the potential for application in areas ranging from lighting and electronic display systems to alternative energy sources and military construction. The company cites several advantages their process holds over current ITO (sputtered indium tin oxide). Among these are cost, flexibility and the material availability of carbon vs. indium.
- Joseph W. Piche: chief executive officer and president
- David Arthur: chief operations officer
- Paul Glatkowski: vice president of engineering
- Philip Wallis: technical director
- Rick Jansen: vice president of sales and marketing
In fall 2003 Eikos completed a private placement round, selling 3.5 percent of the company. In February 2004 Eikos announced the completion of an approximately $1 million early stage funding round with participation from Itochu International, an Itochu Corp. subsidiary.
Selected customers and strategic partners
- Altair Nanomaterials Inc.
- Cytec Industries
- Hyper-Therm High-Temperature Composites Inc.
- Inframat Corp.
Itochu invests in nanotube ink maker Eikos
— Research by Gretchen McNeely