07 Jun Nanotech firm wins Business Plan Contest
Milwaukee, Wis. – A Platteville-based start up with a patent-pending materials technology developed by a professor and a student, and with ambitious commercialization plans, has won the Grand Prize in the 2008 Governor’s Business Plan Contest.
Graphene Solutions, led by Jim Hamilton, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, emerged with the top business plan among four finalists at the annual Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference. In addition to taking the Grand Prize, Graphene Solutions was the winner in the advanced manufacturing category and won cash and in-kind prizes valued at $50,000.
Its next move will be to manufacture reasonably-priced, purified carbon nanotubes and graphene (graphite microsheets) with target markets of research and development labs and product display manufacturers interested in increasing the electrical and mechanical efficiency of their products.
“It’s a real Cinderella story coming from nothing in November and coming up with a new line of products,” Hamilton said.
Graphene’s stars aligned
Hamilton described a fortuitous chain of events that led to the BPC Grand Prize. The company founders, including Hamilton, CEO Phil Jackson, and student co-inventor Philip Streich, were “kind of playing around” with basic research into nanotubes when they stumbled onto a material discovery. They developed a way to dissolve materials previously thought to be insoluble, specifically nanotubes and graphite, the latter for use in making graphene – a thin layer of carbon that conducts electricity 100 times faster than silicon and 500 times faster than steel.
Those fast-moving electrons could lead to product advancements in several industries. The company envisions carbon-based electronics in which nanotubes and graphene would replace silicon-based integrated circuits because, for a fraction of the cost, they can provide dramatically lower power consumption and brighter LCD panels for cell phones and flat-screen television sets. They could also lead to longer-running batteries and solar cells.
“The [consumer] displays will be thinner and lighter and brighter as a result,” Hamilton said.
Eventually, the Graphene Solutions management team plans to talk to companies like Sharp, Hitachi, Samsung, and Motorola, and to the battery and fuel cell markets for energy storage.
The 17-year-old Streich, who does not attend high school but is taking courses at UW-Platteville, plans to enroll at Harvard University. He said the company was able to prove that carbon nanotubes, which otherwise tend to clump together in aggregates, were soluable with the help of an instrument he designed. The instrument employed static light scattering, and the discovery landed him the top prize at the 2007 Intel International Science Fair.
He followed that up in 2007 by discovering a solvent mix that dissolves nanotubes, and later used it to dissolve graphene sheets.
“The key to applying these nanoparticles is to get them in thermodynamically dissolved forms,” Streich said.
There are at least 20 manufacturers of carbon nanotubes, but they are very expensive – costing more than $500 to $3,000 per gram – and there are problems scaling it to production. Existing manufacturing methods are ineffective at producing the required purity and, due to the clumping, the correctly sized product. Until now, they were impossible to dissolve and process in a normal industrial manner.
Yet as important as Graphene Solutions’ nanotube discovery is, Hamilton said it is the unavailability of graphene that the company really intends to capitalize on. The plan is to capture the vast majority of the market share for graphene and do it quickly. “Graphene is wide open, and it will replace nanotubes,” Hamilton predicted.
Graphene Solutions, which is seeking $3 million in angel capital, expects to generate $26.5 million in revenue by year five.
Hamilton said the Business Plan Contest coincided with Graphene Solutions’ need to develop a business blueprint, which it did with feedback from the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network and the Wisconsin Technology Council.
As part of that business plan, Hamilton and his colleagues project potentially lucrative target markets. They believe the demand for carbon nanotubes will reach $250 million worldwide in 2009 and may approach $10 billion by 2020. Both carbon nanotubes and graphene can be used in batteries, fuel cells, and supercapacitors, which have “astronomical” growth potential, according to the business plan.
Streich said electronic applications may be the “very, very tip of the iceberg,” and he noted the military’s interest in graphene for its component materials. “I see applications that use the mechanical strength of nanotubes and graphene,” he said.
The technology is under an exclusive license from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and WiSys, and WiSys is expected to file for domestic and international patent protection.
Hamilton said Graphene Solutions has a small manufacturing facility, but if all goes as planned it would need to branch out. “We can sell directly, but it’s probably smarter to form some strategic alliances and joint ventures,” he said.
The company plans to hire a sales and marketing staff and a research director to develop future processes around the technology, Hamilton indicated.
Angel and venture investors alike have expressed interest, Hamilton added, and the company is interested in applying for a federal small business innovation research grant.
Each contestant in the Business Plan Contest submitted a 20-page business plan for review. The plans outlined the core product or service, defined the customer base and size of market, identified the likely competition, and introduced its executive team.
During the contest, 54 judges were charged with whittling down a field of 250 entries in four categories. The other finalists and their categories included: Pea Pod Homes, Sturgeon Bay (Van Krzywicki), which designs computer-modeled solar homes; Optametra, information technology (Dan van der Weide), which has developed optical modulation test equipment to help measure the broadband capacity of fiber optic cable; and Platypus Technologies, life sciences (Jeff Williams), which is about to market a portable, hand-held oxide monitor to test for asthma.
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