Early payoff has been in consumer markets
For Donn Tice, the path to the new world of nanotechnology leads through the old world of apparel manufacturing (director-e News,, Wednesday 17 December).
Writing in the Mercury News in San Jose, California, Dean Takahashi says Nano-Tex's chief executive officer has travelled the globe this year selling his Emeryville company's nanotechnology chemical formula that makes fabrics stain-resistant.
As he toured a massive textile mill in China's Jiansu province recently, a guide pointed to a building and said, “That's the small dormitory where they have 40,000 workers”.
“I kept thinking, I'd like to see the big dormitory”, Tice says.
Nano-Tex's Nano-Care product is more than just a coating that repels stains. It changes the fabric itself on a molecular level, embedding it with tiny, floppy, hair-like fibres that themselves are attached to a common spine.
Just as hair keeps rain from penetrating a dog's coat, the “nano whiskers” in Nano-Care's chemical mix keeps stains from soaking into clothing. Spill a glass of Merlot on a white blouse made with Nano-Care and the wine beads up into harmless blobs.
Nano-Tex has become something of a nanotech poster child, a relatively rare case of a company that is making real money on nanotechnology, not just dreaming about it.
Nanotechnology involves the manufacturing of materials molecule by molecule on the scale of the nanometer, or a billionth of a meter. While the world has been waiting for nanocomputers or products that automatically assemble themselves atom by atom, nanotechnology's early payoff has been in consumer markets.
Levi’s is marketing stain repellent jeans that have proved hugely popular. L'Oreal inserts nano capsules in its lotions to deliver tiny bits of moisturiser deeper into the skin. General Motors has fashioned stronger running boards and bumpers using nano materials. Babolat in France has marketed tennis rackets made with carbon nanotubes, which are tiny tubes of carbon that can be 100 times stronger than steel.
One sign of the technology's economic potential: President Bush this month signed a bill authorising $3.7 billion (£2.1 billion) in federal funding for nanotechnology research at government labs, universities and private companies.
Even in the post dot-com era, nanotechnology still inspires a huge amount of hype, prompting predictions of such things as microscopic “nanobots” injected into the blood stream to attack disease, or titanium-strength building materials the width of a sheet of paper.
“What this method of manufacturing amounts to is ‘Star Trek’ “, says Jim Walker, an analyst for market researcher Gartner Dataquest in San Jose. “When Captain Kirk says, ‘Beam me up Scotty’, a machine takes him apart atom by atom and builds him back again. That's what nanotechnology is about, taking building blocks of chemistry and forming something new. That's why people get excited about it”.
For nanotechnology proponents, the early payoffs in stain-resistant Levi's and nanotech tennis rackets are just the low-hanging fruit of a technology that only a few years ago seemed like science fiction.
“It's just the tip of the iceberg”, says Stan Williams, a nanotechnology researcher and fellow at Hewlett-Packard. “The fact that these things are happening now as commercial ventures is a vindication of what we've been saying for years. I keep telling people that nanotechnology won't happen in a nanosecond. But three years ago, I never would have imagined that we would be where we are now”.
On the other hand, some would argue that Nano-Tex's brand of nanotechnology, which assembles a tiny but simple structure at the nanometer scale but doesn't create any complex devices at that level, isn't really nanotechnology.
“It's really just better chemistry”, says Robert Morris, director of the IBM Almaden Research Centre in San Jose. “It doesn't mean that nanocomputers are just around the corner”.
Nano-Care inventor David Soane counters that Nano-Tex really has created a nanotechnology product because the company designed its chemicals to assemble themselves into precise structures on a molecular level. “There really is an art to it”, claims Soane, who serves as Nano-Tex's chairman.
On a business level, it's irrelevant whether Nano-Care is “true” nanotechnology or not. In just a couple of years, Nano-Tex has licensed Nano-Care to about 50 apparel companies. Sprayed onto jeans, it is the stuff that makes clothes sold by Levi's, Eddie Bauer, Gap and Old Navy stain-resistant.
The company's researchers work from an old red brick building in Emeryville. In a lab that sports presses, curing machines and industrial-strength washers and dryers, they develop new nanotechnology applications.
Soane, a biotech entrepreneur and former professor of chemical engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, created a way to stain-proof clothes by accident while experimenting with nanotechnology.
He had started a biotech company to capitalise on his work but Thomas Haas, a Levi Strauss executive who invested in the company, steered him toward apparel. “We were just shooting the breeze about biotech, and he brought up apparel”, Soane explains. “I showed him a denim cloth where water was beading up. He said he had never seen that before”.
He obtained initial funding from Levi's in 1998 for a start-up that became Nano-Tex but the clothing company subsequently lost interest in the technology. Soane pitched the idea to George Henderson, then CEO of apparel maker Burlington Industries. Henderson liked the idea and by 1999 Burlington had invested $5 million to buy control of Soane's fledgling company.
In the lab, Soane's nanotech chemical could be pressed into a fabric, baked, washed and tested. The process was compatible with the way that textile mills made clothing, so it was painless for them to adopt Nano-Care. Still, it took a year to perfect the ‘nano whiskers’ so that they would attach to fabric in water.
In December 2000, Nano-Tex announced its first licensee: Galey & Lord, a textile and apparel manufacturer that makes clothing for the Eddie Bauer brand. More deals materialised as Nano-Tex expanded from cotton to nylon and other fabrics.
Rebecca Weill, a spokeswoman for Gap, said customers love the stain-proof khakis and men's shirts that use Nano-Care. And Gap executives like it because the feel of the clothing is unchanged. “We weren't willing to sacrifice style, so we think it's great”, says Weill.
But the deals didn't come in time to save Burlington Industries, the Greensboro, N.C. company that had once employed 80,000 workers. Burlington filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2001. Industrial conglomerate W.L. Ross & Co. purchased Burlington, which has shrunk to about 5,000 employees, for $614 million in October.
Tice, a veteran of the apparel and entertainment industries, replaced Henderson as CEO in early 2003. Tice says Nano-Tex is breaking even and is generating revenues in the millions of dollars from license fees.
The company earns anywhere from 25 cents to $1 for every yard of fabric that it coats. Nano-Tex plans to expand into new markets, such as stain-proof mattresses, boat covers and hotel bedding.
Each item of Nano-Care apparel comes with a tag that explains the product. As such, Nano-Tex hopes to brand its technology in the same way that W.L. Gore Associates has done with its versatile Gore-Tex fabric.
“It took them decades to build their brand awareness”, Tice points out. “We hope to do it in much less time”.