UW Startup Nanocel Seeks Funding and Partners, Wants to Make Computers Cooler

Last May, the Seattle startup Nanocel won the University of Washington’s yearly business plan competition. Now the company—founded by UW mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Dustin Miller and recent UW MBA grad Daniel Rossi—is gearing up for a big year in 2010. Their planned first products, affordable fluid-based cooling systems for computer chips, will fill a large void in the market, Rossi and Miller say.

Nanocel’s technology uses a combination of microfluidics and novel plastic materials to cool devices more cheaply than other liquid-based systems and more efficiently than cooling fans. The products use thousands to millions of very thin (between one and 100 micrometers wide) vessels to circulate tiny amounts of liquid in close contact with the computer chips, or other device components prone to overheating. Nanocel is eco-friendly, Miller says, in that it could save vast amounts of energy over current air-based cooling methods.

Two of the biggest problems in the computer industry are keeping large server farms from overheating and extending battery life in laptops and other portable electronics. “We are currently using over three percent of the nation’s energy on cooling the Internet,” Miller says. Industry calculations say that fluid-based cooling could cut that energy use in half. “That’s a staggering number.”

On an individual scale, a cooling technology that uses less energy will lead to longer battery life, reducing energy usage and keeping more batteries out of landfills. “This can have a real impact, not only at the country level but also at the consumer level,” Miller says.

Miller, who is working on his doctorate in a plastics lab in UW’s mechanical engineering department, says Nanocel is not the first to think of replacing fans with liquid, but other fluid technologies out there use expensive materials such as metal or silicon, making them unfeasible for most consumer products. After seeing a lecture on microfluidic cooling technologies, Miller realized they looked similar to things he was building in the plastics lab. Nanocel’s technology is the first to combine plastics with microfluidics to create a heat sink, Miller says.

Daniel Rossi

Once the technology was invented, Miller joined forces with Rossi, the business expert, and the two did extensive market research to find out who might be interested in Nanocel’s product. It turns out everyone is interested, the founders say. Their potential partners and customers mainly include computer chip manufacturers and designers, Miller says, but they are also talking with companies that make gaming consoles, servers, and hardware.

“There are tons of shelf-ready products that can’t go to market because they’re too hot,” Rossi says. That’s because fans aren’t powerful enough to cool them down, and liquid technologies are too pricey.

As for Nanocel, “the process was originally developed for areas in food packaging or disposable packaging,” Miller says. “So, for the cost of a coffee cup, you can have a heat sink that used to be made out of copper,” Rossi adds.

From the beginning, Nanocel has worked very closely with the UW TechTransfer office, the two say. They’re currently working out a deal to license the technology from the office, as it was developed at UW. The two have used many of the programs the TechTransfer office offers, Rossi says. “We’ve really gotten a lot of help from them,” he says. “I’m grateful, and we’re going to use it for all it’s worth.”

Jim Roberts, UW TechTransfer’s business development officer, was involved in helping Nanocel get off the ground by bringing in student interns to help work with the team, reviewing their practice presentations and business plan, and helping the two make connections in the Seattle business scene. “We’re excited about this technology. We think it has many applications,” Roberts says. “They’ve got all the right ingredients to be a successful company.”

Since the UW business plan competition, the Nanocel founders have incorporated the company, continued their market research, and are gearing up for their first angel funding round in early 2010. They’ve been working on putting together an advisory board and have been talking to many potential clients and partners, Rossi says. None of these are done deals yet, but Miller and Rossi say they’ve gotten enthusiastic responses from everyone they’ve talked to about their product.

“Everyone needs a technology like this,” Miller says.

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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