NEW YORK, May 9 (UPI) -- Some relatively unknown companies could someday make as much of a splash in nanotechnology as the big companies that usually are regarded as the bellwethers, experts told UPI's Nano World.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the biggest winners in nanotech come from the overlooked companies," said Doug Jamison, president of Harris and Harris Group, a publicly held venture-capital firm in New York City and co-editor-in-chief of Nanotechnology Law & Business.
In the NLB's latest issue, experts identified 10 nanotech companies with great potential from some 200 candidates that had not yet received significant attention either from venture capitalists or the media.
Front Edge Technologies in Baldwin, Calif., for example, has developed what may be the world's thinnest rechargeable battery. A licensee of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the company has patented a use of mica to create batteries slimmer than a sheet of paper. Nanoscale engineering gave the device physical flexibility, enhanced its power density and shortened its recharge time.
"The technology could impact large established markets for portable electronics, ranging from laptop computers to cell phones," said Ruben Serrato, a member of Canon USA's research and development group and NLB's managing editor.
"The batteries are also non-toxic and offer significant potential for integration into implantable medical devices," Serrato added. "The thinness of the batteries makes them ideal in emerging areas such as RFID (radio frequency identification tags) and smart cards, where traditional batteries are too bulky for widespread use."
Front Edge -- a family owned company in operation for more than 10 years -- is developing a production line capable of manufacturing 200,000 of the batteries a year. Family ownership can be "a double-edge sword," however, Serrato noted. The upside is a management with a long-term commitment, but the potential downside is concerns about the company's growth and control.
Nanospectra Biosciences in Houston holds an exclusive license to the intellectual property of non-invasive medical therapies using nanoshells -- nanoparticles made up of an insulating core coated with an ultra-thin metallic layer.
Nanoshells can be tailored to absorb or scatter light at desired wavelengths, including ranges where human tissue is relatively transparent. This means doctors can use nanoshells to treat cancer patients by shining light that heats the nanoshell structure and burns tumors without affecting healthy tissues.
Venture firms may have overlooked Nanospectra and other companies up to now because they have not yet actively sought venture capital. Instead, some unknowns in nanotech have relied on federal and university grants and angel investors.
"Many traditional venture capitalists may not really understand the physics of nanoshells, either," Jamison said. "With nanoshells, you'll have to rethink how to apply the therapy (and) rethink standard practices with cancer."
Applied Microstructures in San Jose, Calif., has developed a technique to deposit self-assembling organic nanofilms onto semiconductors, metals, plastics and glass with higher quality and greater control than similar approaches.
Potential applications for the films include moisture barriers in packages, protective coatings in optics, biocompatible coatings for implants, reactive surfaces on labs-on-chips, and anti-friction or anti-corrosion glazes for machine parts, sensors, microfluidics or electronic displays.
"They're a company that has a fundamentally new technology with broad applications that has the wherewithal to build slowly and intelligently," Serrato said.
Among the other promising unknowns:
--Starfire Systems in Malta, N.Y., develops nanostructured silicon-carbide ceramics with superior resistance to wear, corrosion and high temperatures via proprietary polymers. The company's products offer applications in aerospace, electronics, transportation, pollution control and energy. Harris and Harris Group invests in them, Jamison noted.
--Hysitron in Minneapolis supplies nanomechanical instruments for advanced research and industrial applications. The instruments from this 10-year-old family owned company permit accurate nanoscale measurements of properties such as hardness, elasticity, friction, wear resistance and adhesive strength. Their strategy has been to grow via buyouts of smaller tools companies "to compete in the future with larger players," Serrato said.
--Kereos in St. Louis maintains a broad patent platform for nanoparticles as therapeutics and tags that seek out disease-linked molecules. "They have phenomenal technology to deliver a much larger therapeutic payload with perfluorocarbon emulsions, and in imaging with gadolinium complexes that just light up," Jamison said.
The company's location in St. Louis, instead of the financial centers on the East and West Coasts, might explain why Kereos has not yet drawn much venture capital. "Also, they're in a pre-clinical deal and they need a lot of animal data," Jamison explained.
--Nanohorizons in State College, Pa., licenses an intellectual property portfolio from the Penn State Research Foundation covering manufacturing processes for thin-film nanostructures. "They have a broad enabling technology for numerous application areas," Serrato said, including medical diagnostics, pharmaceutical development, chemical sensors, and flexible micro-electronic applications in consumer, industrial, environmental, forensic and homeland security.
--Dendritic Nanotechnologies in Mount Pleasant, Mich., holds Dow Corning's foundational patents for dendrimers -- tree-like branching molecules that scientists can customize precisely at the tips. This ability gives dendrimers extraordinary diversity of applications. Starpharma in Melbourne, Australia, is developing dendrimers as pharmaceuticals that can be readily tailored to treat specific diseases, tissues or organs.
Despite its partnership with Dow Corning, Dendritic remains small at 10 to 15 employees. It is funded by government and university grants, with no significant venture capital, Serrato said. "This company has chosen a path of slow, organic growth," he noted.
--Novation Environmental Technologies in Reno, Nev., maintains a license for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's iodine-based disinfection technology, which uses nanofiltration to help purify water.
Developed for space shuttle flights, the technology now finds use treating Reno's water. The company is funded by NASA's Space Certification Program to convert government technology into commercial products. Novation also holds a sublicense with PentaPure in Eagan, Minn., for low-priced water purification in less-developed countries, Serrato said.
--Nanopoint in Honolulu is developing a breakthrough system to enable scientists to conduct microscopy inside living cells at resolutions of 50 nanometers or less -- in the infrared, visible and ultraviolet ranges.
Nanoscale structures enable this incredibly high resolution by amplifying hard-to-detect evanescent waves "and use the information contained within them," said Dan O'Connell, Nanopoint's chief technology officer. "This level of resolution to view the inside of a living cell is currently not done at all."
Nanopoint plans to couple its nanomicroscope with a platform that holds cells and tests each with minute doses of chemicals. The process permits monitoring with extreme precision the effect of drugs on tissues, allowing far more efficient use of drugs and rare tissues such as stem cells, thereby saving time and money "and potentially helping find a more efficient drug a lot quicker," O'Connell said.
Nano World is a weekly series examining the exploding field of nanotechnology, by Charles Choi, who covers research and technology for UPI Science News. E-mail: email@example.com