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Science and Technology




Exploradio - A start-up's steep climb
The rocky road from lab bench to factory floor is littered with could-have-beens, but that's not stopping one Akron start-up
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
A gecko's foot shows the filaments that give the lizard its amazing sticking ability. Researchers in Akron are commercializing their version of gecko tape.
Courtesy of U. of Akron
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New products usually have three phases on the way to commercial use. First is discovery, then the steep learning curve to pilot production, and finally the jump to full-scale production.

In this week’s Exploradio, we look at some of the challenges of taking an idea from the lab bench to the factory floor.
Exploradio - Gecko tape

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The steep climb

In a kingdom in ancient India geckos were used in combat, according to Ali Dhinojwala …

“There was a ruler named Suwaji  and his army was using geckos to scale the vertical cliffs and that’s how they used to attack the fortresses.”

Dhinojwala teaches polymer science at the University of Akron, but his interest in the powers of geckos has led to a new start-up company with its own steep cliff to climb.

Dhinojwala and former student Sunny Sehti , now with his PhD, developed a carbon-nanotube tape based on the clinging powers of the gecko lizard.  They now intend to take their invention to market.    

“Something that we do on a small scale in the lab is not necessarily a sure shot that it will actually work in a commercial enterprise.  Are we going to make money out of it?  Are we going to be able to make large quantities of the stuff?  So there a lot of challenges.”

The new company, ADAP Nanotech, rents space at the Akron Global business incubator.  Partner Sunny Sehti describes his plans for the now empty production facility.

“Since our equipment is really big, they will be breaking this wall here and putting a big door like this, 6 feet wide, so we can get stuff here and in the lab.”

Once the wall is knocked out, Sehti will install custom-built, high-temperature furnaces to make the carbon nanotube tape on a larger scale. It’s a purchase made possible thanks to a quarter-million dollar investment from local venture capital firm JumpStart. 

“After JumpStart’s investment we were able to buy some bigger furnaces and we’ll be turning this lab into a pilot-scale production facility.”

Investing in an idea

The gecko tape they plan to make here won’t be used as tape. With help from business advisors, ADAP’s Dhinojwala identified a more promising market for their invention. 

“And so we decided that the perfect application would be for making your computers cool down rapidly.”  

It’s called thermal management.  And it turns out that carbon nanotubes in the tape are the best material for moving heat away from computers, or laptops, even smart-phone processors. 

It’s this potential use that made ADAP an attractive investment for JumpStart’s Lee Poseidon.

“We think it’s going to revolutionize that market because you can now have electronics that work and dissipate a lot more heat and that’s the gating factor in the processing speed of electronics today.  They generate far too much heat for the size of the footprint.” 

Poseidon estimates only three out of every 10 start-ups survive beyond two years.  But he says he invests not just in promising ideas but in promising people.

“Great ideas can’t really be executed well without great people and you really need both parts of that equation.”

That puts a lot of pressure on Sunny Sehti.

“So my work is mainly building the technology, but I also present to investors, and I write proposals, and do lab experiments, accounting, legal stuff, a lot of things.”

Producing people

Meanwhile Ali Dhinojwala plans to stick with teaching.  He says he will advise Sehti and ADAP Nanotech, but he’s interested in a different product.

“My product here is not whether I make a tape out of this thing or make a company called ADAP Nanotech, but my main product is my students (who) become successful…that’s my product and I want to continue doing that.”

ADAP Nanotech will begin pilot production of the gecko tape in the next couple of months. Output will jump from the few centimeters produced in the lab to several thousand square inches per day in the pilot plant.  If they’re successful, full-scale production could happen in a couple years, otherwise, it’s back to the lab for ADAP Nanotech.

I’m Jeff St. Clair with this week’s Exploradio.


Related Links & Resources
ADAP Nanotech

Akron business incubator


Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - Orchid obsessions
Monday, February 20, 2012

Exploradio - Outwitting ice
Monday, February 13, 2012

Exploradio: From the belly of the beast
Monday, September 30, 2013

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