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Why Did NanoInk Go Bust?

After a host of high-profile nanotechnology companies have bit the dust, the question of why is this happening is getting more desparate

2 min read
Image: NanoInk

One of the United State’s first nanotechnology companies, NanoInk, has gone belly up, joining a host of high-profile nanotechnology-based companies that have shuttered their doors in the last 12 months: Konarka, A123 Systems and Ener1.

These other three companies were all tied to the energy markets (solar in the case of Konarka and batteries for both A123 and Ener1), which are typically volatile, with a fair number of shuttered businesses dotting their landscapes. But NanoInk is a venerable old company in comparison to these other three and is more in what could be characterized as the “picks-and-shovels” side of the nanotechnology business, microscopy tools. NanoInk had been around so long that they were becoming known for their charity work in bringing nanotechnology to the Third World

So, what happened? The news tells us that NanoInk’s primary financial backer, Ann Lurie, pulled the plug on her 10-year and $150-million life support of the company. After a decade of showing little return on her investment, Lurie decided that enough was enough. But that’s like explaining that a patient died because their heart stopped. What caused the heart to stop?

The technology foundation of NanoInk was an atomic force microscope-based dip-pen to execute lithography on the nanoscale. This so-called nanolithography would create nanostructures by delivering 'ink' via capillary transport from the AFM tip to a surface. One thing that always seemed problematic with this technology was that it wasn’t really scalable.

As Tim Harper, CEO of UK-based consulting company, Cientifica (full disclosure: I work for Cientifica), told me: “Nanolithography is interesting on the lab scale, but so is writing down your lab notes with a pen and ink. The rest of the semiconductor works in a mass-produced, highly automated way, so NanoInk's offering was the equivalent of replacing the printing press with a bunch of monks. Illuminated manuscripts can look good but if you can't mass produce things there isn't a business.”

The problem for NanoInk wasn’t just scalability. Companies can be very successful based on one-off products, but there has to be a market for them. NanoInk's lack of a broad market explains how 10 years and $150 millions of investment failed to create a successful business, according to Harper.

“Normally I advise tech companies to find the need, figure out whether their technology can address, and then look at whether or not there is a business model,” says Harper. “Most nanotech businesses started with the technology and tied themselves in knots from there on in.”

In addition to falling victim to chasing “technology push” rather than “market pull,” NanoInk also fell victim to a common malady of nanotechnology companies: Pursuing just about every application for their technology that anyone could imagine.

“A major issue is that you have so many markets to take a shot at that you wind up doing nothing properly,” explains Harper. “NanoInk had five increasingly desperate divisions. Perhaps a better model would have been to realize that dip pen nanolithography was never going to be a mainstream technology, fold the company, write down the investors, and then use the IP and experience to build a few niche companies that addressed a real need.”

Image: NanoInk

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3 Ways 3D Chip Tech Is Upending Computing

AMD, Graphcore, and Intel show why the industry’s leading edge is going vertical

8 min read
A stack of 3 images.  One of a chip, another is a group of chips and a single grey chip.
Intel; Graphcore; AMD

A crop of high-performance processors is showing that the new direction for continuing Moore’s Law is all about up. Each generation of processor needs to perform better than the last, and, at its most basic, that means integrating more logic onto the silicon. But there are two problems: One is that our ability to shrink transistors and the logic and memory blocks they make up is slowing down. The other is that chips have reached their size limits. Photolithography tools can pattern only an area of about 850 square millimeters, which is about the size of a top-of-the-line Nvidia GPU.

For a few years now, developers of systems-on-chips have begun to break up their ever-larger designs into smaller chiplets and link them together inside the same package to effectively increase the silicon area, among other advantages. In CPUs, these links have mostly been so-called 2.5D, where the chiplets are set beside each other and connected using short, dense interconnects. Momentum for this type of integration will likely only grow now that most of the major manufacturers have agreed on a 2.5D chiplet-to-chiplet communications standard.

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