Nanotechnology Business is Big at Drexel

Published on Thursday December 16, 2004

Nanotechnology is the fastest growing field of technology, promising to become a major driving force in the world economy within a decade. Research in this area currently receives tremendous support from the federal government (more than $800M this year) and industry (about $1B in the U.S.).

The success of this field will be determined by the rate of transition from basic research at the nanoscale (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter) to the commercialization of useful nanostructured materials. These materials and nanoscale devices can have a higher energy efficiency and perform functions that cannot be achieved by current technologies. Nanotechnology is expected to solve many energy, environmental, and medical problems that humankind is currently facing.

Southeastern Pennsylvania is one of the most active regions in the country in the field, with several universities and companies in the area excelling in nanotechnology research. In 2000, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania invested more than $10M to create the Nanotechnology Institute (NTI), of which Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are leading institutions. The goal of the NTI is to develop new nanotechnologies and transfer them to industry. When will we expect a return on this investment? An event that took place last month shows that this may happen pretty soon.

Two Drexel University nanotechnology start-ups were selected as two of the top eight business ideas in the First International Nanotechnology Business Idea Competition, sponsored by the Institute for Technology Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (InTICE) at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. A total of 49 budding businesses from around the world, representing the cutting-edge in nanotechnology commercialization, submitted business plans. The two teams from Drexel made it through the first round of competition in mid-October when they were notified that they were among 25 chosen to present their ideas to a panel of judges from the entrepreneurship, business, financial, and academic communities. These presentations took place Thursday, October 28th, and both Drexel teams were among eight selected for the final round of presentations, held Friday, October 29th. This recognition of talent and entrepreneurship is a major success for the local nanotech community.

John Chmiola and Ranjan Dash, two Ph.D. students in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, represented Y Carbon, a limited liability corporation, whose founders include Director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute Dr. Yury Gogotsi, research assistant professor Dr. Gleb Yushin, and master's student Varun Gupta. In addition to his Ph.D. in materials, Dash is pursuing an M.B.A. and Gupta plans to study business after obtaining his M.S. degree. All have received numerous awards highlighting their scientific accomplishments.

The team's business idea revolved around Y-Carbon's plan to "launch the mass production of its state-of-the-art supercapacitors." A supercapacitor is a rechargeable device that can provide much greater power than batteries currently on the market. These devices are suited for a variety of practical applications where large amounts of power are required, including PDAs and cell phones, but Y-Carbon's primary target market is for use in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) such as the Toyota Prius.

Y-Carbon's product is made from a nanotechnology-based carbon material whose structure is precisely tuned for use in a supercapacitor. Drexel University and several of the Y-Carbon founders have patented the process for making this material; they have also filed a patent application on improvements to this process. As a result of this new material, Y-Carbon's supercapacitors are lighter, smaller, and more efficient than batteries, as well as other supercapacitors that are currently available commercially.

The other Drexel team that participated in the competition consists of Zachary Forbes and Dr. Benjamin Yellen. Yellen received his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Drexel in September 2004 and Forbes plans to earn his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering in the spring of 2005. This team is supervised by Dr. Gary Friedman from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Dr. Ken Barbee from the School of Biomedical Engineering. Greg Fridman and Derek Halverson who are Ph.D. students in Friedman's group contributed significantly to the research.

This team's entry into the competition was Magnetic Biosystems (MBS), a company founded by Zachary Forbes and Ben Yellen that is developing a "drug delivery system that uses magnetic implants and magnetic nanoparticles to administer repeatable and patient specific dosages of therapeutic agents to specific sites in the human body," according to their written plan.

MBS has filed a patent application for its technology, which they believe improves on other magnetic drug delivery systems because of its use of two sources for capturing magnetically-charged drugs or drug carriers. One source is a magnetic implant, such as a stent; the other source is a magnet held externally to the patient's body. The drug can then be injected, and these two magnetic sources can be used in combination to concentrate the drug in the area of the body where it is most needed.

"Our primary application will be the development of a magnetic stent for treatment of restenosis (re-narrowing of an artery after angioplasty), but future applications include magnetic implants for treatment of tumors, aneurysms, and other medical conditions," states the business plan.

For their participation in the final round, each team was awarded an honorable mention and a $1,000 cash prize. Though neither team brought home any of the top three prizes, worth $50,000, $15,000, and $10,000, respectively, "it's hard to be discouraged when you're surrounded by such top-notch competition," Forbes said.

This is not the first time Drexel engineering students have participated in an international business plan competition. After winning second place in the 2003 Business Plan Competition sponsored by the Laurence A. Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship in Technology and the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University (to Forbes's and Yellen's first place), Drexel Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. student Emily Ho and former Ph.D. student Dr. Nevin Naguib, who is currently employed as the Enrico Fermi Scholar at Argonne National Laboratory, were chosen to present their venture plan, Hy-Nano, in the University of San Francisco 2004 International Business Plan Competition, April 1-3, 2004 in San Francisco, CA. One of ten finalists, they did not win the competition, but the experience and exposure to venture capitalists was valuable for the engineering students.

"This competition was a good experience for our students and great exposure for the work we do in nanotechnology at Drexel," said Gogotsi. "With one quarter of the finalists being from Drexel University, we can say with confidence that Drexel is becoming a major force in the commercialization of nanotechnology and it serves as a great training camp for young people interested in both the science and business of nanotechnology."

Forbes agreed: "While Ben and I have been driving forces for this research to push it towards commercialization, it's the quality faculty and students that have helped the work come together and evolve to what it is today."

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