Nevada Nanotech taking steps toward production
The National Innovation Award that Reno’s Nevada Nanotech Systems Inc. won last month is more than a nice plaque to hang in the lobby of the company’s office.
The award marks the start of the company’s full-scale effort to market its technology for applications in homeland security and life-science applications.
That’s a big step for the nine-year-old company, which has been living primarily on on-again, off-again grants from the U.S. Defense Department, says President Ralph Whitten.
Nevada Nanotech Systems, built on research conducted at the University of Nevada, Reno, has developed a silicon chip about the size of your thumbnail that can measure fundamental molecular properties of solid, liquid and vapor samples.
It can detect quantities as small as one part in a trillion of some chemicals — a precision that draws the attention of military and security personnel who want highly reliable ways to detect explosives or chemical weapons.
And Whitten says their interest is further stirred by the small size and frugal power use of the Nevada Nanotech chip. It’s possible, for example, that it could be used to create detection devices that soldiers could simply clip onto their clothing.
Among life-sciences companies, the technology can be used to help researchers sort through millions of potential compounds in their search for useful drugs.
A more-mundane application might come from the fresh-produce business, where the ability to use chemical vapors to track the ripening of fruits and vegetables would allow expediting of shipments that are threatening to become over-ripe.
As cool as the technology may be, Whitten now faces the challenge of generating sales.
That’s an effort that got a good boost with the TechConnect Innovation Award, which honors the top innovations from around the world through an industry-review process. Rankings are based on the potential positive impact of the technology.
“We’re on the ramp to production now,” Whitten says.
Nevada Nanotech is preparing to begin production of products for two customers in 2015.
Each product, Whitten says, will lead to about 10 high-skill jobs — scientists, engineers and the like — for the company. It currently employs seven at its office and laboratory facility on Greg Street in Sparks.
Overseeing the company’s technological development is Jesse Adams, a one-time assistant professor at UNR who now works as vice president and chief technology officer of Nevada Nanotechnology.
Adams’ work at UNR was nurtured by the university, which provided an exclusive license to launch Nevada Nanotechnology as a commercial venture in 2004.
The company’s technology today is protected by 17 patents.
Sen. Harry Reid was instrumental in working with Congress and the Pentagon to win funding that helped establish Nevada Nanotech.
“We found him to be very supportive of the expansion of the technology business here in northern Nevada,” says Whitten.
The very newness of the Nevada Nanotechnology’s technology, however, sometimes has been a challenge as potential customers have been wary to make a major commitment to something new.
Whitten says the company now has enough data that show that the technology works to convince most skeptics, and the TechConnect Innovation Award further validates the Reno company’s processes.
The agreements are designed to split the costs of improvements such as traffic signals between Carson City and developers whose projects generate the traffic increases that trigger the need for improvements.