In one of the largest nanotechnology patent deals to date, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, called Nano Terra has licensed rights to more than 50 patents from Harvard University. The wide-ranging set of patents–the result of research done in the Harvard chemistry lab of George Whitesides–covers everything from techniques for designing materials that assemble themselves into microscopic lenses and data storage devices, to tools for patterning complex nanoscale circuits over large, irregularly shaped surfaces.
Nano Terra says that it will use the massive intellectual-property portfolio as the basis for a business strategy that will market its ability to quickly adapt the tools covered by the patents to create products that its clients either could not make themselves or could not make cheaply. Founded in 2005 by Whitesides and his former Harvard chemistry fellow Carmichael Roberts, Nano Terra has already signed development agreements with the Department of Defense, the German specialty chemical company Merck, and the materials giant 3M, based in St. Paul, MN.
Unlike a number of other nanotech companies, which focus on specific structures such as carbon nanotubes or nanocrystals and have developed working prototype devices, Nano Terra is focusing on supplying manufacturing techniques, says cochairman Roberts. The company’s approach is also a departure from earlier Whitesides ventures, which have included a number of successful health-related companies, such as the biotechnology giant Genzyme, based in Cambridge, MA and the startup Surface Logix, based in Brighton, MA. (See “Carmichael Roberts.”) Nano Terra’s licenses specifically exclude biomedical applications for the related technology.
Roberts points to a few examples of technologies described by the patents that could be valuable to manufacturers. A process called contact printing, for example, uses a rubber-based stamp bearing a pattern of micro- or nanoscopic lines so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. The stamp is then inked, and the pattern is transferred to a large surface. The ink is designed to attract metal molecules, which, when deposited on the inked surface, arrange themselves into wires along the lines of ink. The contact-printing techniques could work over the large, curved surface of a windshield, embedding it with invisible wires to defrost it, Roberts says.
There are many other potential applications, Roberts says. For example, the military might be interested in developing novel coatings for windshields that keep them clear of sand. Nano Terra’s technology could also be used to improve the properties of military uniforms. Indeed, the company’s tools could be used to improve a wide variety of materials by altering their surfaces.
The 50-plus patent licensing agreement with Harvard is unusual in its size, says Lita Nelsen, director of the technology licensing office at MIT. The institute, she says, has “never done anything that huge.” It’s likely that not all the patents are breakthroughs; many simply improve on earlier work. But, she says, “George Whitesides has been very prolific.”