But technical challenges are not the only pressures facing Nanomix. Not only is the company racing to get a nano product to market, it must beat the competition to the relatively small pool of venture capital funding available for nanotech startups. Among many experts, excitement over the prospects of nanotechnology may be growing, but the willingness of investors to sink money into highly speculative technologies is not growing nearly as fast. Which means that Nanomix-like a number of other young nanotech companies-must struggle not only to answer daunting scientific questions but simply to survive.San Francisco-based Alta Partners gave Nanomix seed funding in 2000, and as of last year Nanomix had raised $4.5 million. But since then, additional funds have been hard to find, as venture capitalists have grown cautious following last year’s economic crash. “It’s been a long slog getting other people to invest,” says Alta partner Peter Schwartz.
Ironically, it is exactly the strengths of Nanomix-a strong academic pedigree and theoretical expertise-that can handicap the company in front of potential investors wary of a field where results often sound more like basic research than viable products. And Nanomix’s bevy of theorists makes it especially easy to mistake the firm for a basic-research lab.
The pressure has led Nanomix to put a short-term emphasis on product development at the expense of the company’s efforts in theoretical physics. But while Cohen may accept the immediate necessity of getting a product out the door in order to win financial backing, he remains committed to his dream: a company that invents and commercializes nano materials by coupling quantum modeling and theory with deft experimentation. It’s a dream filled with exotic materials, limited only by the rules of physics and the cleverness of its practitioners.
Like many nanotech researchers, Cohen and his scientific colleagues at Nanomix are convinced that nano materials will have applications not only in sensing and hydrogen storage, but in electronic devices a thousand times smaller than today’s silicon transistors-making possible ultrafast, ultrasmall computers. Lilliputian circuits with billions of nano components may still be years in the future, but Nanomix researchers are already thinking of the nano materials that could make them happen.