Nanotech Players Crowd Screen Scene

For Joseph Piche, rounding up $1 million from Japan’s Itochu Corp. to finance the company he started feels like that first small step on the moon.

That $1 million – Eikos Inc.’s first round of institutional financing – is the spark that Piche hopes will launch his Franklin, Mass.-based nano-materials company on the road to being the dominant player in a competitive market for developing complex films for flat-panel and flexible displays.

Now, he says, “The phones are ringing off the hook with orders and requests for samples.”

Piche is Eikos’ CEO. He founded the company in December 1996 to manufacture polymers for optics applications.

By the end of October 1997, Eikos had seven contracts in place – mostly government related, worth $1.2 million. Today, the company employs 16 and takes in between $10 million and $15 million annually, Piche says.

In January, the company licensed its technology to a Itochu affiliate, Takiron Co. Ltd. of Osaka. With a licensing agreement in place, and a strategic investor on board, Piche hopes the recent $1 million funding is just a start.

The company wants $15 million from investors as quickly as it can close a deal, Piche says. He wants to scale up operations, hire more and buy capital equipment. Piche says he wants to expand the company’s intellectual property and possibly buy a small carbon nanotube manufacturer.

“The only thing between us and chewing up and eating a $1 billion market is capital,” Piche says.

That, and the competition.

Optiva Inc., a South San Francisco-based company, is funded with $41.3 million from investors like JPMorgan Partners, South Korea’s Daehong Corp., Eastman Chemical Co., Harris & Harris Group and NextGen Partners. Like Eikos, Optiva is developing materials for flat-panel and flexible displays. It’s shipping coated films for LCD displays to customers in China. Itochu, coincidentally, is one of the company’s distributors.

Another competitor is Milpitas, Calif.-based FlexICs, which has developed a process that allows semiconductors to be built on plastics, a technology that can enable flexible, shatterproof and lightweight electronic displays for consumer electronics. It has $23.5 million of venture funding, with commitments from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Intel Capital and Mobius Venture Capital.

Competition might also come from other nano-materials companies developing carbon nanotubes for specialty applications. Southwest Nanotechnologies, for one, is a University of Oklahoma spinout that has a strategic partnership in place with ConocoPhillips. Together they’re building a manufacturing facility for low-cost carbon nanotubes in flat panel displays and electromagnetic materials.

Others are working on developing flexible displays using organic electronics, the science of making semiconductors and insulators with materials like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Royal Philips Electronics has an initiative called Polymer Vision that’s created a display panel 225 microns thick with a bending radius of 2 centimeters using electronic “ink” developed by E-Ink Corp., a venture-backed company that spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in 1997. Also, Dow Chemical has patents protecting flexible display work.

To date, much of Eikos’ R&D has been funded through federal and military grants. It has two contracts with the U.S. Army and another two with NASA.

The same polymers that can be used to shield aircraft from electromagnetism in space have optical properties that make them a tool for building flat-panel and flexible displays. Eikos has developed carbon nanotube-based materials that can be used as a conductive and transparent film for building displays.

Layers and layers of films and coatings are what make interactive flat-panel displays work. Some layers polarize or diffuse light; some are used to muffle any noise that comes from the display. Another layer needs to convert a user’s touch into an electronic signal to relay information back and forth between the user and the operating system behind the screen.

When a customer punches a secret code into an ATM machine, for example, there’s a conductive layer that relays the electronic password from the touch screen to the bank’s computer system. It’s a transparent and thin layer that also can transmit electronic signals.

Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) is the material that’s used inside ATM machines today. Eikos wants to replace ITO with a carbon nanotube coating that it claims is cheaper to produce and longer-lasting. Frost & Sullivan estimated last year that the global flat panel display market generated revenue of $33 billion in 2002 and could reach $99.26 billion in 2009.

Replacing ITO in ATM machines and other flat panel displays is Eikos’ first goal. After that, it plans to go after the market for flexible displays, LCD displays and photovoltaics, or solar cells.

But there’s the question of whether carbon nanotubes are even the right substitute for ITO.

“[To replace ITO with carbon nanotubes] would be a very big deal,” says Carl Cobb, Optiva’s marketing director. “It’s easy to say but hard to do.”