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Toward that end, Lim has been patenting fabrication techniques and processes he believes are critical to the future large-scale manufacturing of nanotech products and is weighing plans for expanding the company. Lim founded Atomate just 18 months ago with an angel investment of about $1 million; nonetheless, he says it is close to breaking even and doesn’t necessarily need further investment. Still, he would love to hire more researchers to continue to develop and patent techniques.

Whether to grow organically and profitably as revenues increase from the existing customer base or bring in additional investment and ramp up operations (unprofitably) in anticipation of a major industry breakthrough is a critical decision for Lim and his team. Organic growth is the safe but slow path – one that may allow competitors to leap past Atomate.

Oddly enough, a load of new investment can raise the risk of failure. Cash in the bank guarantees short-term survival, but the corresponding increase in expenses creates a widening hole that can only be filled by an increase in revenue. Startups survive on a diet of optimism and improving prospects, with key employees accepting pay cuts in exchange for stock options and hope. Once new people are hired, salaries raised, and office space occupied, it’s hard to scale back without disillusioning employees and investors alike.

Of course, the road to success rarely rises straight up, and everyone has to be prepared, at least mentally, for things not to go precisely as planned. In technology startups, as in any form of prospecting, it’s good to be good, better to be lucky, but best to be both.

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