News Article

Nanomat builds on ground floor of molecular manufacturing
Date: Jul 29, 2002
Author: Suzanne Elliott
Source: bizjournals ( click here to go to the source)

Featured firm in this article: Nanomat Inc of North Huntingdon, PA

Srikanth Raghunathan has big plans for his small product. In fact, Mr. Raghunathan sees his company, Nanomat Inc., giving birth to at least two different, but related, firms in the not-so-distant future.

Nanomat performs nanotechnology, a type of molecular manufacturing. It is an evolving process with seemingly endless commercial possibilities. Simply put, nanotechnology is building things one atom at a time, Mr. Raghunathan said.

The trick to nanotechnology is to manipulate atoms and place each exactly where it's needed to produce a desired structure. Nanomat, based in North Huntingdon Township, Westmoreland County, makes a variety of fine-grained powders that are used in the process.

Nanotechnology is now being used in everyday products like car parts, eyeglasses, paint, paper and even sunblock lotion. And Nanomat is looking atways it can be used to make chemotherapy more efficient.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," said Mr. Raghunathan.

A 12-person operation, Nanomat has revenue in excess of $1 million and several universities and Fortune 100 companies as clients. Citing confidentiality agreements, Mr. Raghunathan would not disclose client names.

Nanomat was formed in 1995 by Mr. Raghunathan, who at the time was working for Concurrent Technologies Corp., a Johnstown-based research and technology firm.

"I knew I always wanted to do this," said Mr. Raghunathan.

Mr. Raghunathan's wife, Shree Kumar, who runs the administrative side of the business, said: "He was never challenged" by the work he had done in the past.

Nanomat began as a consulting company that did jobs for other technology and research firms. While Mr. Raghunathan was working as a consultant, Ms. Kumar was helping her husband's clients find scientists and chemists.

"We did head-hunting," she said. "That was one way to raise money to fund ourselves."

The company, which has been self-funded, is now looking to partner with venture capitalists to finance its growth and spin-off plans. Nanomat is profitable, Ms. Kumar said.

In the mid-1990s, nanotechnology became a hot field, largely through the promotional efforts of the Clinton administration, which wanted to draw attention to new types of tech industries. After three years as a consultant, Mr. Raghunathan believed it was time to manufacture his own product.

"There was a real value in making the powders ourselves," said Mr. Raghunathan, who came to the Unite States in the mid-1980s from his native India to earn his master's and doctorate degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Texas.

Mr. Raghunathan said he located in North Huntingdon to be close to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. The company occupies 35,000 square feet in three buildings in the Banco Industrial Park, where it has two labs and $4 million worth of equipment.

"We wanted a decent location with a reasonable cost of living," he said. "We also wanted to be able to attract talent. We had considered Philadelphia, Connecticut and Boston."

Nanomat is currently one of the first companies to commercialize the manufacturing of talc and calcium carbonate nanopowders, which it calls NanoTalc and NanoCalc, Mr. Raghunathan said.

What makes these two products significant is that they can improve the quality of products already in the marketplace. With these powders, plastics manufacturers can produce stronger products and paint manufacturers can improve the gloss, cracking and water resistance of their products.

Ms. Kumar said she and her husband plan to form a separate company -- Nanova -- to concentrate on manufacturing NanoTalc and NanoCalc. Nanova will be formed by the end of the year, she said.

"Right now we're looking for funding," Mr. Raghunathan said.

Nanova will be based at a separate location. Ms. Kumar said an 80,000-square-foot building is needed with access to rail lines and ample water and power supplies.

"These powders will be manufactured in tons," said Ms. Kumar, adding that they will be sold to manufacturers.

She and her husband plan to initially hire 20 people to staff Nanova and estimate that employment could eventually reach 100. The company needs line operators, process engineers and chemists and a close relationship with CMU, Ms. Kumar said.

"We have some investors approaching us," said Mr. Raghunathan, adding that he would like to situate Nanova in Pennsylvania.

Two more products under development for which Mr. Raghunathan has high hopes are magneto rhealogical fluid -- called MR Fluid -- and Ferrafluid.

MR Fluid contains magnetic powders that can be used to adjust the viscosity of liquids, such as motor oil. Ferrafluid has potential health applications. Gold particles, which are invisible to the naked eye, are suspended in water. Hospitals can attach drug molecules to the gold particles and direct medication to a specific part of the body.

Ms. Kumar said she and her husband want to form a separate company as well for these products.

"We're a small company right now," Mr. Raghunathan said. "You're talking to the senior janitor."