Startup Profile: Harvard Patents in Hand, Nano-Terra is Driving Industrial Applications of Nanotech

Nano-Terra, a start-up founded by legendary Harvard chemistry professor George Whitesides, might be dealing on the small scale, working with materials measured in nanometers and microns, but the company is imagining a big future.

That’s not surprising, given that Whitesides has founded a number of successful companies, notably Genzyme, the biotech giant now worth more than $3 billion—and that Nano-Terra recently licensed more than 50 patents and patent applications from Harvard that cover the design and production of materials at molecular levels. Basically, the company hopes to do anything that can be done with Whitesides’ nanoscale fabrication technologies outside of biotech.

“What Nano-Terra has is a breadth of technologies out of the Whitesides lab that allows you to go into many areas, to grow value that way,” says Carmichael Roberts, Whitesides’ longtime collaborator and a co-founder of the company. The two also founded the drug development company Surface Logix and medical device company WMR Biomedical (both are also Xconomists). The products and therapies that biotech companies tend to focus on may eventually have huge payoffs, but they face years of trials and regulatory hurdles that make them risky ventures, Roberts says. A company that can produce new or better commercial and industrial products may not have a single big payday, but could still be extremely successful, he says.

One of Nano-Terra’s key technologies is soft lithography, a method of nanoscale patterning that’s cheaper and more flexible than the photolithography used to print circuits on computer chips. Soft lithography can be used to print circuits on curved surfaces, which might lead to windshields printed with microscopic defrosting wires to clear away ice without obscuring vision, for instance, or water-repellant coatings that prevent fogging. It could also allow the printing of anti-counterfeiting stamps on documents. Nano-Terra already has a deal with the Department of Defense to develop a coating that could be printed on a missile’s nosecone to protect it from electromagnetic interference.

Nano-Terra’s other capabilities include methods of self-assembly—getting materials to build themselves up into, say, tiny light-emitting diodes or electronic circuits, perhaps turning a t-shirt into a computer display. The company can also control the surface chemistry of materials, creating sensors for diagnostic or environmental testing. It might make microfluidic devices, using its technology to move fluids around a tiny laboratory on a chip, which could be used for portable food safety monitoring or homeland defense applications.

All in all, Nano-Terra’s technologies are “a very powerful toolbox that allows you to manipulate things at the micro and nanoscale,” says Lara Estroff, a former post-doc of Whitesides’ who is now a professor of materials science at Cornell. When it comes to using chemistry to develop better ways to build a variety of devices and materials, “he’s the best there is at it, I think.”

The 17-person company is backed by Harvard, which will receive royalties from any products developed by Nano-Terra, and some private investors, but has no venture capital and won’t say how much funding it’s lined up. The business model, Roberts says, is to collaborate with established companies to improve current production processes or look for new products that couldn’t previously be made. In May, Nano-Terra signed a multiyear development agreement with 3M, and in February it agreed to work with Merck to develop better pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals, possibly by as soon as next year.

Other, still-unannounced collaborations are in the works. While Roberts wouldn’t specify what the collaborations might come up with, he expects healthy profits. “If we develop a process that can be core to several of 3M’s businesses, that puts us in a good position to really capitalize downstream,” he says.

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