How a MacGyver of the Semiconductor Industry Plans to Rescue Nanosys

Jason Hartlove has a name and a rakish mug worthy of a soap-opera star, a resume that any Silicon Valley engineer would envy, and a bit of swagger as a turnaround CEO. He co-invented the optical mouse at Hewlett-Packard, ran a 3,000-employee manufacturing operation for HP spinoff Agilent in Malaysia, and set South Korea’s struggling MagnaChip Semiconductor on its current path to an IPO. “One of my investors said this—so I won’t claim it for myself—but I am a technology MacGyver,” Hartlove says. “If you give me some piece of technology, I can really figure out what to do with it.”

But at Palo Alto, CA-based Nanosys, where he took over as CEO in October 2008, Hartlove may be facing his biggest challenge yet. With an impressive portfolio of patents based on work at MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and other institutions, the nine-year-old company has repeatedly been described as one of the most promising in a batch of nanotechnology startups that emerged around the turn of the millennium. In its early years, it investigated areas like solar cells and display electronics where it was thought that nano-engineered materials could lead to higher power output or greater efficiencies. But real commercial applications for nanotechnology insights have been slow to emerge, and Nanosys has yet to bring a single product all the way to the market (the first is set to appear in the fourth quarter of this year, if all goes according to plan).

“The clock is ticking for Nanosys…since its financial backers are counting on a return on investment in another three to five years,” wrote Technology Review magazine. That was in 2004—just a few months before Nanosys called off a planned IPO that still hasn’t happened.

Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove

Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove

After the pulling the plug on the IPO, “the company sort of struggled a little between 2005 and 2007 about what exactly its mission was,” Hartlove told me earlier this week. “It continued to do some directed research but didn’t really have an eye toward commercialization.” The shakeup year was 2008: CEO Calvin Chow was let go, former Symyx Technologies CEO and Venrock partner Steve Goldby became the company’s interim leader (he’s still chairman today), and the board recruited Hartlove to find Nanosys some real products.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Hartlove’s tactics since 2008 MacGyveresque, and so far, he hasn’t even used a Swiss Army knife. He has focused the company on the two research programs that seemed most likely to produce marketable products in the near future. And he has pushed forward one of them, a “QuantumRail” component that increases the brightness and efficiency of LED backlights for mobile device displays, to the point that the company is earning “real revenue from real paying customers,” in Hartlove’s words. The first customer is LG Innotek, which plans to use the QuantumRail in 5 million phone-sized displays by the end of 2010; its purchases recently contributed to Nanosys’s first break-even month.

Demand for the nanocrystals that go into the QuantumRail, as well as the high-capacity anode material that Nanosys is developing for the lithium-ion battery industry, is growing fast enough that the company will soon need to find larger quarters outside Palo Alto, Hartlove says. And within 18 months, he says, the company hopes to be in a position to restart the IPO process. “We’ll have display products on the market, battery products on the market, a track record of revenue and profitability,” he says. “Those are the milestones.”

At least one Nanosys investor, Lux Capital, seems to buy into Hartlove’s optimism. “Things have really accelerated and they’re on a rapid path to success,” says Josh Wolfe, a managing partner at the New York-based firm, which contributed to a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “How a MacGyver of the Semiconductor Industry Plans to Rescue Nanosys”

  1. Peter Silver says:

    Is he MacGyver or MacGruber? Time will tell. Company has been working on nano-technology for almost 10 years and has no products.
    Nano means very small chance of success.

  2. Robert Lee says:

    Very informative and amazing articles which made me more knowledable about nanotechnology’s bright future with more commercializable products into our daily life.

  3. Tyson says:

    Unfortunately for Nanosys, this new CEO seems to focus more on boasting about his past (unverified) accomplishments than trumpeting the technology of the company he has been hired to save.

    Every interview I’ve read of his is about boasting about how he “co-invented” the optical mouse, with a couple of other conveniently unnamed guys, rather than selling the product.

    Nanosys is doomed.