PALO ALTO, Calif. -- If you mention the company Nanosys to anyone that has worked in advanced electronics for the past 10 years, there is a good chanced you will get this reaction.
"Umm? Oh, yeaaaaahhh..."
For a few years, the Palo Alto-based company epitomized the promise, arrogance and general lack of focus in the emerging world of nanotechnology. The company amassed millions in venture capital and aligned itself with some of the top researchers in the world – Paul Alivisatos of the University of California, for instance, and Harvard's Charlie Lieber.
Conglomerates like Mitsubishi inked research development deals with them. It filed for an IPO in 2004.
It then quickly yanked it. Although the market was rising then, investors didn't show much of a taste for a company that lost money at a regular clip, only had about 34 employees, and wanted to go out at $15 to $17 a share.
Following what was considered a black eye for the nanotech market, many of the members of the management team fled or were shown the door.
Now, things are different, says Erica Rogers, executive vice president. About a year ago, the company shifted away from licensing intellectual property, always a daunting challenge, to actually making and selling components based on its own technology. Nanosys still tries to license technology, but there is a greater emphasis on things that are drop-in replacements for traditional components.
"At the end of the day, you've got to start selling something," she said.
It also reduced the scope of its research to focus on a few things.
"We've gone from 'R' mode to R&D and product mode," added Victor Hsia, who also works at Nanosys. Hsia was demonstrating Nanosys products at the Always On Stanford Summit, taking place this week.
Exhibit A for the turnaround plan is a filter for light emitting diodes that improves the quality of light in white LEDs. White LEDs generally consist of a blue light LED covered by a filter coated with a yellow phosphor. While the phosphor-coated lens turns the light white, it is a clinical, "cold" white light. "Alien autopsy" is one way to describe it.
Nanosys' LED filter contains quantum dots developed by the company. (Similar quantum dots have been used in medical research.) The quantum dot lens turns the blue light into a "warm" white light that resembles the kind of light that comes out of a regular incandescent bulb. Again, Nanosys will not sell the know-how or the quantum dots to LED bulb makers. It will sell the complete filter as a component, which potentially will make it easier to integrate into finished products.
Although Nanosys has made several demonstration LED light bulbs, the first market for these LED filters will likely be for LEDs used in TVs and notebooks to provide a wider spread of colors. Some LED-based notebooks now offer full color gamut, but it can impact battery life.
"This is the only way to get full color gamut without taking a hit on battery life," she said.
The company is also trying to sell silicon nanowires – which grew out of research conducted by Lieber – as a component for anodes in lithium-ion batteries. Like the LED filters, some companies are already experimenting with the nanowires.
"We are in lithium-ion batteries," she said. More news will likely come out this fall.
But old habits die hard. The company also showed off a catalyst for methanol fuel cells, which has been a zero billion dollar market even longer than nanotech.