Lancaster nanotech firm, Illuminex Corporation, thrives with a little help from the state.
Dr. Youssef "Joe" Habib was determined not to allow history to repeat itself. The M.I.T. physicist came to Lancaster several years ago to work for a budding nanotechnology company, but it folded in four years. For Habib, it was a blessing in disguise.
"I learned from them how not to run a business," he says. "They made mistakes such as spending money like there was no tomorrow."
In March 2003, two months after the company folded, Habib started his own nanotechnology firm and opted for a more frugal approach. His first step was to find an affordable location. Millersville University offered him a storage closet for his office space and a classroom prep lab for $150 a month.
"I wasn't a rich person and couldn't toss money around," says Habib. "I'm indebted to Millersville for giving me the opportunity to get started."
As a result of this collaboration, Habib's company, Illuminex Corporation, established a dedicated nanotechnology research facility at the university. Today, Illuminex is located in the former 3,000 square-foot RCA building in the Burle Industrial Park in Lancaster, which already contained a fully equipped wet-chemistry lab. Last year, Illuminex expanded into another space next door with about 1,300 square feet and a fully equipped R&D laboratory.
Illuminex produces nanotechnology-enabled devices based on its ability to create vertically aligned nanowire arrays. Nanowires, about 1/1000 the diameter of a human hair, look like bristles on a toothbrush, where one end is attached to a substrate and the other end is free.
"We exploit the unique optical and electrical mechanical properties of these arrays of nanowires to make devices in the thermal management and solar energy markets," Habib says. "Given the size of the company and the opportunities we see, we decided to use nanowire arrays on two technologies: low-profile, high performance heat-pipes for thermal management and lightweight, flexible, and efficient photovoltaics."
The heat pipe for thermal management will be used for cooling electronics such as processors and servers. But it's the $25 billion photovoltaics market that could prove to be a boon to the company. The market is projected to mushroom to about $100 billion by 2012, according to Habib.
"And it will keep rising depending on how the technology is developed. It could be a multi-trillion dollar industry," he adds.
Photovoltaics—commonly known as solar cells—absorb sunlight and then convert it into electricity. Unlike other companies that produce photovoltaics that are rigid, heavy, and expensive, Illuminex's photovoltaic is lightweight, efficient, and affordable.
"Photovoltaics can be used to generate cleaner electricity," explains Habib. "It's a big part of the alternate energy of the future because it produces no pollution. It's a very nice alternative to fossil fuel in this day and age of global warming, unstable prices, and political strife in the oil market."
One of the applications that Illuminex is working on is a photovoltaic fabric.
"If you place a patch of this material on your shoulder, you can put your cell phone in it and recharge it while you're walking outdoors," Habib says. "There's also interest in military applications, as well as consumer applications from awnings on buildings to roofing materials."
Habib says that the company is currently in discussion with the Ben Franklin Technology Partners about obtaining seed money to start the fabric project.
Illuminex's closest device to market is the heat pipe. It is collaborating with another Lancaster-based company, Thermacore Inc., the largest North American manufacturer of heat pipes, to develop and market a nanowire-enhanced heat pipe product.
"By using nanowires inside the heat pipe, we can cool electronic and optical devices," says Habib.
While the overall heat pipe market is dwarfed by the solar cell market, Habib feels that this device will solidify Illuminex as more than just an R&D outfit.
"Once we get this out the door, we'll be looked upon as a company with a real product," he says. "There are a lot of nanotechnology companies out there that don't have a product, so we're excited about our first product launch."
Don't expect Illuminex to stop there. It plans to keep researching and developing new applications based on nanowire arrays.
"There's an infinite amount of applications for these nanowire arrays and we've only just scratched the surface," says Habib.
Habib credits his company's success to state resources like the Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
"The Ben Franklin Technology Partners Transformation Group helped us with our business plan and conducted market research," he says. "As a physicist, I got my business training on the fly. They've been invaluable in providing me with good information, good advice in writing a business plan, and helped us get some deals going."
In March of 2007, Illuminex received $300,000 from the PA Nanomaterials Commercialization Center, which was formed to help accelerate the commercialization of nanomaterials research for new and enhanced products. The company also received a $600,000 Small Business Innovative Research grant from the Department of Energy. Most recently, a Pennsylvania Market Access Grant enabled Habib to visit Australia earlier in the year to explore the option of exporting his commercialized products when it is time to market them.
"Pennsylvania supports innovative small businesses like Illuminex," says Habib. "There are so many resources available to a small business person if you take advantage of them."