September 03, 2012
Credit: NANOCOMP TECHNOLOGIES
Instead of throwing away those credit-card applications that arrive in the mail, Peter Antoinette filled them all out as he and his co-founders struggled to get Nanocomp Technologies and its carbon-nanotube fiber technology off the ground in the early 2000s. It is a story any entrepreneur can tell, and President and CEO Antoinette can now joke about Nanocomp's shaky origins as the company enters its latest and largest round of fund-raising backed by a financial and strategic relationship with chemicals and materials giant DuPont.
Carbon nanotubes (CNT) offer extraordinary electrical and thermal conductivity, but were previously available only in powder form, making it challenging to use them in aerospace. Concord, N.H.-based Nanocomp is the first to grow millimeter-long CNTs and use them to produce lightweight, conductive sheets, tapes and wires—product forms with which aerospace is familiar.
“The initial idea was the brainchild of co-founder and chief technology officer David Lashmore when he was principal scientist for small incubator Synergy Innovations,” says Antoinette. “On a plane ride home he had an idea for how to make long CNTs.” Synergy spun off a company and hired Antoinette to provide entrepreneurial leadership.
Nanocomp's first breakthrough was a $100,000 contract from the Office of Naval Research. This was followed by a $2 million contract from the Army's Natick (Mass.) Soldier Systems Center, which Antoinette says required the fledgling company to learn rapidly how to draft a complete response to a Pentagon broad area announcement.
A couple of years later, at a defense nanotechnology conference in San Diego—which Antoinette describes as “speed dating, where the big primes were stuck talking to small companies”—Nanocomp caught the attention of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. “On a number of aerospace programs, we hit exactly what they wanted.” Through the primes, the company's CNT material has been used in spacecraft, including NASA's Jupiter probe Juno, to provide electrical and thermal protection at reduced weight.
“If you have a technology in the right place, at the right time, then you get to show you can deliver,” says Antoinette. While CNTs hold promise for dramatically improved materials “short tubes do not translate into macro properties, and are only modestly used. The product form is a powder and the aerospace industry doesn't work with powder, it works with wires and sheets,” he says.
“We came in with long tubes. They don't have the full properties of individual CNTs, but are enough of an improvement to make a difference. And we can produce wire, fiber, sheet and tape—forms the supply chain can use, which decreases the time it takes to adopt.”