Nanotech: Think Small


Superbugs. Doctors say it’s only a matter of time before one creeps out of the jungle or flies out of a chicken coop to infect, and maybe kill, millions around the world. When one does, hospitals will become the most likely point of infection. But Northwest Mettech Corp. is working on a way of slowing pandemics. The North Vancouver-based company is developing an invisible powder that is lethal to germs and bugs – no matter how super they may be. Company owner Alan Burgess says it could be sprayed on hospital walls, in cracks and corners to prevent the spread of germs. He’s just not sure how to do it.

The powder is so fine that Burgess needs extremely high-powered microscopes and special equipment, labs and expertise just to see and work with it. Each speck is so small it is measured in nanometres: one-billionths of a metre. The material Mettech is working on is considered a nanopowder, and it’s just one application of nanotechnology, a catch-all phrase referring to the study, development and manipulation of particles as small as atoms. Nanotechnology is not a separate industry, but a segment of the high-tech world producing tiny materials and devices servicing everything from mining to health. Mettech is one of at least 10 companies in B.C. working on nano-sized projects related to big ventures (Tekion’s fuel cells on a chip, for example), as well as small ones (tire-pressure monitoring). Many of the firms are privately owned, and both Mettech and MIV Therapeutics have corporate offices in the U.S., the source of much of the capital on which B.C.’s nanotech ventures are operating. This province is a hotbed of nanotechnology: it is currently home to 10 per cent of Canada’s nano businesses, and 20 to 25 per cent of the country’s nano researchers. Long touted as the way of the future, nanotechnology is working its way from the research lab into the business world as new technology makes it easier to work on this tiny, atomic scale. In 2001, the National Science Foundation in the U.S. forecasted that US$1-trillion worth of nanotechnology-enabled products would be on the market by 2015. According to Lux Research, a U.S. venture capital firm that invests in nano, American corporations are spending US$700 million a year on nano research. “Of all the Fortune 500 companies that make something,” Lux’s Mark Modzelewski points out, “there isn’t a single one that isn’t already making something at the nano-scale, researching or investing in nanotech.” For Mettech to refine the application of its nano-powder and get it on the market, it’s going to need a strong ally with deep pockets and plenty of resources. “We need highly skilled people and analytical tools that, as a small company, we just can’t afford,” Alan Burgess acknowledges. Enter 4D Labs, a new-materials lab at Simon Fraser University stacked with $35 million worth of the newest nano-tools, with whom Mettech is looking to partner. And when other companies follow Mettech’s path and look to nanotechnology to help them solve problems and make money, 4D will be there to help. “We’re not going to develop a material or device and then look for a use for it,” says Neil Branda, an SFU organic chemist and acting director of the lab. “We’re interested in solving real-world problems. We want to partner with industry to solve their problems. We want to take things from the chalkboard right to delivery.” Branda is one of 4D’s eight lead researchers. He and his colleagues are in the process of moving out of the confusing corridors of the South Science Building at SFU ’s Burnaby Mountain campus and into lab space in a new building next door. By late January they’ll get cracking on the 4Ds: design, development, demonstration and delivery. Using a team of more than 60 beyond-the-lab-thinking scientists, post-doctoral and grad students from chemistry, biology, physics, math and engineering, 4D Labs wants to solve the stubborn problems dogging every industry, from forestry to pharmaceuticals to energy. Branda envisions the lab’s high-powered microscopes, materials-fabrication instruments, labs, scientific brains and experienced technicians being employed to develop novel ways of cleaning up contaminated soil, making stronger plywood, delivering drugs to patients and improving the efficiency of batteries. It might sound too good to be true, but Branda says that a number of private companies and entrepreneurs in addition to Mettech already are partnering and collaborating with 4D Labs. Branda won’t name names, but he says each partnership is unique. “Our business model is that we don’t have a business model,” he says. “We’re very flexible.” For example, Mettech knows what it wants to do and has a pretty good idea of how it will do it, but doesn’t have the equipment to make it happen. For them, 4D will provide space, time and technical assistance in the lab. Another company came to Branda looking for 4D Labs to take an idea from concept to finished product. Other businesses fit somewhere in between. Best of all, says Branda, the companies retain ownership of the international patent; they don’t give up the right to the technology by partnering with the university. Mettech, for instance, has to license the technology it developed at the University of British Columbia in the ’90s, but at SFU, any new developments will belong to the company. That’s important for nanotech start-ups. It typically takes five to 10 years and tens of millions of dollars to go from concept to development with nano-scale devices. During that time, the technology is all companies have to woo investors and stay in business. MIV Therapeutics Inc. has spent about US$35 million over the last five years and has brought in squat in the way of revenue. The Vancouver-based company, with 25 employees, is developing a stent (essentially a scaffolding used to hold open previously clogged arteries) with a nano-thin coating of HAp, an enamel found in human bones and teeth. Animal testing showed HAp-coated stents have fewer complications than traditional metal-and-polymer-coated stents. It will be another two years of human testing and international health certification before the device goes commercial and money starts flowing. And this is a company Fortune magazine ranked among the top 100 nanotechs in 2006. Denis Corin, manager of investor relations with MIV, says nanotech is just like any other business when it comes to attracting investors. “You have to have a story with significant benefits and be able to show that your product and company are going to be around a long time.” In the last year, MIV’s story got a boost when polymer stents started to receive negative press due to complications, giving HAp-coated versions a definite edge. MIV employs 18 scientists in various fields. That’s part of what makes nanotechnology unique: it’s not just biology or just engineering. Branda, for example, wants to use molecular switches – molecules that change shape and properties when they are stimulated by things such as light or electricity – to create drugs that can be turned on and off inside the body. One way to do this is to incorporate light-sensitive molecules in the drug. The idea is to give a person a drug that doesn’t work until an iridescent light with a specific wavelength is passed over the body. “As a chemist, I have no experience in how molecules interact with cells and I can’t create devices,” says Branda. To bring this kind of technology to patients, he has to consult tissue and cellular biologists, drug-makers and MRI technicians. This need for teamwork is reflected in the SFU lab. There is no physics wing or biology department; all the sciences are mixed together. The eight chief research scientists’ offices are next to each other, while the post-doc and grad students work calculator to Petri dish in an open office in the centre of the two-storey facility. A visiting-scientist lab provides an arena for staffers to geek out with researchers from all over the world. But in nanotechnology, some problems are bigger than one lab can wrestle to the ground. To solve huge medical problems with tiny science, Branda decided to take 4D Labs’ model online to create Nanomed Canada. With 4D Labs as a major sponsor, the not-for-profit online community of 22 universities, hospitals and institutes across the country is creating a website where researchers and frontline doctors can interact easily. Papers and opinions will be debated, researchers will ask questions and get answers, and specialized equipment will be tracked down using blogs, chat rooms, webcasts and a network of people who may never meet. “We do this all the time over coffee or at the water cooler,” Branda explains. “Now we’ve got it on a bigger scale.” The plan is to use the Nanomed model to link researchers and users in forestry, mining, fisheries and other industries using 4D Labs as a hub for all the activity. “The novel approach allows researchers to solve problems in real time, without having to know everyone,” says Bruce Schmidt, the head of business development at Genome BC, a research-investment institute, and a chair of the BC Nanotechnology Alliance, an industry group. Schmidt says 4D Labs’ goal-oriented, business-friendly approach is what is needed to grow B.C.’s nanotech industry. Meanwhile, the big U.S. investors who fund most of the activity in B.C. are not only hoping for a big payoff down the road, but are banking on takeovers and buyouts by larger companies once these experimental, locally grown nanoproducts prove useful. Promises of nanotechnology’s huge revenues may be a little premature, but its possibilities are far-reaching, touching almost every industry, says Schmidt. And Branda says 4D Labs is ready for all of them. “We want industry to come to us and tell us their problem,” he insists. “Then we’ll put the team together to solve it.”