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 ofand . “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 '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.”
While CNT core conductors made from Nanocomp's braided yarn rival copper for high-frequency data conductivity, the company's non-woven sheets and tapes can be used for structural reinforcement, lightning-strike protection, electromagnetic shielding, deicing heater mats and even battery electrodes.
“The primes make the initial pass, and put the material through qualification, then they tell us about their supply chain,” Antoinette says. “At the same time, we went to the wire and cable companies serving aerospace and showed them we can reduce weight 60-70%, with materials that drop right into their processes,” he says. “They've had nothing new to offer for years. Now we are re-introducing them to their customers. You have to play all sides.”
Nanocomp is now at the beginning of an expansion phase. “Several aerospace companies have taken our products to a technology readiness level of 6 and are ready to go, in both satellites and aircraft,” says Antoinette. Commercial avionics providers are showing customers data-network and inflight entertainment applications using Nanocomp's CNT core conductors and shielding to reduce cable weights.
The company has opened a 30,000-sq.-ft. pilot plant in Merrimack, N.H., and has capacity for further expansion “when we understand where we are in the adoption cycle,” he says. With higher production rates will come lower costs. “We're about four times the cost of current cable, but at 60% weight savings, no fatigue fracture and no bend restrictions, we are at the threshold for adoption. Within the next 24 months we will be at a nice price point.”
As an investor in the $25 million Series C financing round now underway, DuPont plans to use CNT materials in its ballistic-protection and honeycomb core-structures markets. “DuPont brings us money, market access and help in scaling up,” says Antoinette.
Nanocomp, meanwhile, continues to invest in R&D. While the Merrimack plant focuses on customers and production, the company has maintained its original Concord facility as an advanced development center. “We don't want to get sucked into the application side and lose our technology lead,” says Antoinette.