Nanotech's miniature visionaries unsure where to focus
Does particle detection business NanoSight need to shed some of the early adopters of its technology to “cross the chasm” to mass market acceptance?
'If a seagull landed on the USS Nimitz, the supercarrier would sink by one nanometre,” says scientist turned entrepreneur Dr Bob Carr, who is trying to describe the dimensions of the peculiar world of the ultra-miniature in layman’s terms. “And the hair on your chin grows by one nanometre in the time it takes you to lift your razor from the sink.”
Nanoparticles, which are typically just a few nanometres, are small enough to interact on the same level as microscopic bacteria or viruses. Products’ active ingredients can also display vastly altered and improved properties when they are reduced to a far smaller size, Carr explains. This has seen the fast-emerging field of nanotechnology seized upon by a range of industries, including food manufacturers and drugs companies, to make products cheaper and more effective.
The problem for most nanotechnology developers is that their raw materials can be so minute that they’re less visible than some of the more remote areas of the universe. Scientists who want to analyse nanoparticles previously had to spend £250,000 on an electron microscope – an uncommercial prospect in most cases.
This lack of visibility has led to accusations that companies aren’t accurately testing how the nanoparticles they’re creating will react with the environment. Some have even claimed that certain nanotechnology – which is effectively unregulated – could be the “new asbestos”, with warnings that particles could be small enough to inadvertently slip through cell walls and even damage genetic code.
“Isn’t it amazing that these products are being produced at two a week in the supermarkets and there aren’t basic tests on the toxicology? That’s where we come in,” says Jeremy Warren, chief executive of particle detection business NanoSight, which is commercialising patented technology invented by Carr, which captures the scattered light produced by nanoparticles in laser light.
A former biochemist at government and military science park Porton Down, Carr accidentally discovered a way to “see” nanoparticles through a conventional microscope by using lasers and prisms. “It’s like specs of dust in a shaft of sunlight in a dark room,” he says.
The company sells patented instruments and software for between £25,000 and £40,000, which allows scientists to visualise, count, size and track nanoparticles in liquid suspension. Last year’s revenues of £2.25m, up 40pc from 2009, were equally split between academia and businesses, with 90pc of the sales coming from outside the UK.
Unusually for a science-focused start-up, NanoSight had only modest financing requirements. Since it was founded in 2003, it has been backed with less than £2m of venture capital and angel money. The company moved into profitability for the first time this year and has seen more than 250 peer-reviewed third-party papers published based on research that relied on its technology.
“The rate of publication is growing exponentially. It’s a free, independent and international way of getting our name out with maximum credibility,” says Carr, who is now chief technical officer and still owns 27pc of the business. “What more could you want for a new technology?”
While the company’s sales resources are small – six people serve the US market from an office in Ohio, distributors are used for the Asian market while three staff serve the rest of the world from the UK office near Salisbury – Carr says its “strike rate is extraordinarily high”. “We sell to three out of four people we show it to.”
Scientists’ growing interest in the technology has been driven by its multitude of applications, from pharmaceuticals to paper manufacturing, detecting bio-weapons and quality control in paints and sunblocks.
Both Carr and Warren say that’s a remarkable seal of approval for their innovation, but admit it leaves NanoSight in a strategic quandary. “The good thing about NanoSight is that there are 30 or 40-odd applications. The worst thing about NanoSight is there are 30 or 40 applications. Our current problem is – what the hell do we do now we’ve got the tiger by the tail?” asks Warren.
He believes the company should focus on where it has the greatest traction, but Carr is concerned that could mean missing out on discovering more lucrative applications. “I keep checking the bathwater for babies.” .
“Do we continue to pursue every area or do we actively pick one or two we think are best – and at what point do we do that?”
Warren says the company is “crossing the chasm”, referring to Geoffrey Moore’s famous marketing book of the same name. Moore said bridging the “chasm” between the early adopters of a product and the “early majority”, who represent a growing acceptance of a technology by the mass market, is the biggest challenge technology businesses face. “You’ve got all the early adopters and then you’ve got to decide where to focus to make a profit,” says Warren. “Our issue is judging when we’ve reached that level of maturity and which ones to pick.”
Warren is drawn towards “three or four” markets with “big, well-financed customers” who will use the technology for core applications, potentially including drug delivery, viral vaccines, topical drug suspensions and an emerging field of biology studying exosomes, which transport materials between cells in the body.
Exosomes unexpectedly generated a third of NanoSight’s sales in the past six months as excitement grew among scientists about their treatment applications, including the possibility of using dementia drugs nanoparticles planted in exosomes to cross the blood-brain barrier.
However, Carr has a sneaking suspicion that a strict strategic focus isn’t yet necessary – and could even be counterproductive. “[Markets] select themselves because our sales are starting to condense on these four areas anyway. I would rather still sell at tick-over level in other areas.”
Warren disagrees. “We ought to focus on one or two applications because then you become the leader in the class, the obvious choice – you can talk to them in the same media and see them in the same meetings.”
Whatever the solution is, Carr acknowledges that he’ll have to leave his “comfort zone” if NanoSight is to achieve its target of 50pc year-on-year revenue growth, which would mean sales of around £16m by 2015.
“[Scientist to entrepreneur] is a tough transition. I recognise we’re entering areas outside my direct experience and I’m apprehensive. I’ve been happy enough with our rate of growth so far. Now it’s getting scary.”
Source: The Telegraph /...
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