Large revolution, but on a tiny scale

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2008 - 10:30 PM

By thinking small, a St. Paul start-up has put its nanotechnology on a world stage.

Cima NanoTech CEO Jon Brodd showed a microscopic image of a product being developed by his company of nanoparticles, which self-assemble into a transparent coating. The product is being developed for plasma displays, touch screens and solar cells. The holes average about 100 microns, about the diameter of a human hair.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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As chief executive of Cima NanoTech Inc., Jon Brodd keeps an active global itinerary. The St. Paul-based start-up operates a research-and-development center in Israel, and manufacturing and marketing operations out of Japan. ¶ Today, Brodd embarks on perhaps his most high-profile trip: Davos, Switzerland, the site of next week's World Economic Forum, where top political and business leaders including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Microsoft founder Bill Gates will discuss everything from poverty to global warming.

The forum recently named Cima a "Technology Pioneer," a distinction given to 39 companies around the world this year whose innovative technologies contain the "potential to have a substantial long-term impact on business and society in the future." Past winners include Google, Mozilla and Napster.

Founded in 2002 using Israeli technology, Cima manufactures materials that are used to make plasma television screens, solar cells and radio frequency identification tags in a way that's cheaper and greener. Cima has raised $24 million, mostly from investors in South Korea and Japan, home to major electronic manufacturers such as Panasonic and Sony. The venture-capital backed company is in the "pre-revenue stage."

Cima's technology is "both basic and revolutionary," said Ataru Onuma, senior managing director of Nikko Antfactory, a Japanese venture capital firm and one of Cima's largest investors. "It is not easy to copy."

Broadly defined, nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter on a molecular level. Substances behave differently in smaller sizes, which means scientists can alter certain chemical, biological and physical properties to produce everything from stain-resistant clothing and lighter tennis racquets to powerful microchips and sensors.

From small things, big money

Products incorporating nanotechnology generated more than $50 billion in sales in 2006, according to New York consulting firm Lux Research Inc. Venture capitalists poured $699 million into nanotechnology that year, up 10 percent from 2005, Lux said.

Wall Street is also taking notice. In November, Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray & Co. helped underwrite the $112.7 million initial public offering of Nanosphere Inc., a company that uses gold nanoparticles to develop genetic tests that are faster and cheaper than competing products.

Cima's "self-assembling" nanoparticles will help electronics manufacturers save money and reduce waste, according to Brodd, a former 3M Co. executive.

Normally, manufacturers make plasma screens by covering entire pieces of plastic with copper, then using acids to wash away 90 percent of the copper, forming a fine grid pattern that conducts electricity, transmits light and shields consumers from electromagnetic radiation. But the process is expensive, time-consuming and produces waste that can't be recycled, Brodd said.

Cima's process involves spraying or coating special silver nanoparticles onto glass or plastic. Once the film is air-dried and heated, the silver nanoparticles automatically form patterns and shapes that accomplish the same tasks as copper grids, but without the waste.

Brodd says the technology presents significant benefits for manufacturers of plasma televisions that want to cut costs in the face of shrinking profit margins.

A sharp and persistent decline in flat-panel TV prices has triggered a financial meltdown in the consumer electronics industry. Retail chains and manufacturers that initially prospered from consumers' desires for the sleek sets now face a flooded market, thanks to intense competition from discounters.

"The suppliers don't really care that we have nanotechnology," Brodd said. "They care that we developed a high-performance, low-cost coating. There is real intense pressure to drive down the costs."

But the long-term environmental benefits of Cima's technology -- the ability to do more with less without generating waste -- is what caught the eye of the World Economic Forum.

"At the end of the day, it's always about cost" for manufacturers, Brodd said. "Green is nice, but it's not enough to open doors. But I think longer-term, the environmental impact -- or should I say the lack of environmental impact we are going to have -- is going be much more important. You are seeing consumers already today, almost unprecedented, requesting green technology."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

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