May 24, 2004 — Nanometrix Inc. has a wide range of industries to pursue with its thin-film technology: biotech, chips, photonics, fuel cells — and wrapping paper.
It’s not every day that the gift-giving industry has need for nanotech, but the four-person, Montreal-based startup has piqued the interest of at least one company in the field — which Nanometrix general manager Patrick O’Connor diplomatically calls the “appearance films” business.
Exactly what Nanometrix is doing for the company, O’Connor won’t say. He does drop one intriguing hint: Nanometrix is also making an almost identical film for another potential customer in the biotech business.
It’s all part of O’Connor’s plan to develop Nanometrix as a platform technology, able to spool out films continuously in layers as slim as 1-nanometer thick. “We’re the plywood of nanotech,” he said. “Now people can go out and build with it.”
Incorporated in 2001, Nanometrix is a spinout from the University of Quebec. The company is the brainchild of Gilles Picard and Juan Schneider, two researchers at the university who developed its technology of “rolling” particles onto a substrate in quick, uninterrupted fashion. The two are now vice presidents of research and technology, respectively.
The technology essentially works like a printing press. Particles are placed in a fluid, which flows down a ramp leading to a dam. The dam forces the particles to pile against each other in an orderly monolayer, which is then squeezed through the dam onto a substrate. The film can be 25-centimeters wide and rolled out continuously as quickly as 1-meter per minute.
That approach differs radically from Langmuir-Blodgett, the dominant technique for making films today. The Langmuir-Blodgett method aligns molecules into a desired formation on a water surface, which then “rains” onto a substrate. In theory, manufacturers would also use vacuum deposition or chemical-vapor deposition to make films as well. None of these approaches, however, allow for as precise, uninterrupted creation of a film as the Nanometrix approach. O’Connor plans to exploit this attribute as the main selling point for his technology.
“We can do all of that on an unlimited width,” he said.
Lance Greggain, a Toronto-based angel investor familiar with Nanometrix, believes the technology has great potential in polymer electronics and similar fields where semiconductors could be layered onto flexible surfaces. Most valuable is its ability to roll out layers precisely, rather than in the inherently random manner of Langmuir-Blodgett raining onto a surface.
“You don’t get that from any other thin film. It enables you to do a lot of things better,” he said.
Greggain gave the example of gate oxides, used to insulate gates from other microchip components; gate oxides are “grown” on a gate rather than deposited precisely. “Well, we only grow it because we can’t deposit it,” Greggain said.
Nanometrix can make multiple layers of different materials, or create patterns by imprinting the pattern on a substrate and then tweaking the particles’ chemistry so they only adhere to that patterned section.
O’Connor gave an example of one Nanometrix customer (who he won’t name) that used the technology to perfect a fuel cell for cars. One component of the fuel cell is a membrane of carbon studded with platinum dots, but the customer could only shave down the membrane to 10 microns — still so expensive that it alone accounted for 20 percent of the device’s cost. Nanometrix fashioned a layer only 0.1-microns thick. The necessary platinum was reduced by 90 percent, and the overall cost of the cell by nearly 20 percent.
According to research from DeutscheBank, the worldwide market for thin films should jump from $27 billion in 2001 to $93 billion by 2010, thanks largely to growth in nanomaterials. O’Connor plans to tackle the materials and biotech sectors first.
Greggain, who has founded five semiconductor companies over the years, said one difficult choice for Nanometrix will be deciding whether to focus its technology on untested, but potentially lucrative, markets like polymer electronics, or on stable markets like automobile components, which have much longer sales cycles and exacting standards for adopting new technologies.
“They do have to conquer those things,” Greggain says. “It’s a delicate balancing act.”
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Incorporated in 2001, Nanometrix was spun out of the University of Quebec and co-founded by university researchers Juan Schneider and Gilles Picard. The firm plans to aggressively license its technology and pursue commercialization-focused partnerships.
Industries potentially served
Biomedical / Life Sciences: various
Communications: Data Storage / Memory Systems
Communications: Optical Components
Energy / Earth Sciences: Alternate Power Sources
Small tech-related products and services
Nanometrix has developed nanoscale particle assembly technology that competes with the Langmuir-Blodgett method, a current industry standard.
Patrick T. O’Connor: general manager, chief executive officer
Juan Schneider: vice president of technology
Gilles Picard: vice president of research and development
Key investors: Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Juan Schneider, Gilles Picard
Applied Thin Films Inc.
MicroPowder Solutions LLC
Barriers to market
Nanometrix is introducing a new technology to compete with an existing standard (as well as other thin-film methods currently in use) in a crowded niche. The company will need to decide whether to target newer markets, where profit is likely to be high but long-term growth is uncertain, or established markets, which are difficult to penetrate but which can offer greater long-term security.
Relevant patents (Canadian Patents Database) Method and apparatus for two dimensional assembly of particles
Nanometrix names CEO
— Research by Gretchen McNeely