Company Takes on Big Job Of Measuring Nanoparticles
TECH: Possible Markets Include Medicine, Oil, And Semiconductors
In a scene from detective fiction, the hero jumps into a taxicab, points a finger toward the windshield, and says three words that we all know are coming: “Follow that car.”
Some locally developed technology being commercialized by San Diego-based Manta Instruments Inc. operates on roughly the same principle – though on a very small scale.
Manta is cracking cases by following that particle.
Manta’s technology, licensed from the University of California, San Diego, determines the size of nanoparticles – objects in the range of 5 nanometers at the low end to 3,000 to 5,000 nanometers at the high end. (A human hair, by contrast, can be in the range of 20,000 to 200,000 nanometers in diameter.)
$500 Million Market
There is a $500 million market for measuring nanoparticles “We can make a big dent in that,” said Manta CEO Rick Cooper. Nanoparticles might be too small to pick up on a microscope. The Manta instrument, however, shines light on the tiny particles, views the scattered light, and uses that information to tell how fast the particles are moving. That answers the question of just how big those particles are.
Manta’s instrument works because the size of a particle is a function of its speed. The natural, Brownian motion of a particle through its environment is “rock-solid science,” Cooper said.
Cooper and his coworkers see several potential markets: in the pharmaceutical industry, oil and gas, semiconductors, clean-tech and cosmetics. Already Manta is working with seven organizations on a dozen “real-world” materials. Cooper said that nondisclosure agreements won’t let him say much more about the projects.
Cancer drugs are one potential area of emphasis. A nanoparticle may be able to deliver a toxic payload through a certain-sized hole in a tumor. But the size of that nanoparticle might be critical. If the particle is too large, it will likely block the opening. If too small, the particle might be able to enter healthy tissue and destroy it.
Manta says its machine can adequately measure the concentration of nanoparticles, and reliably measure changes in nanoparticle size over time. One more selling point is that it can identify particles of vastly varying sizes simultaneously. Cooper showed a video from the Manta machine identifying polystyrene beads of various sizes: 50 nanometers, 240 nanometers and 800 nanometers.
Scientific visitors look at the video and their jaws drop Open, Cooper said.
Manta Instruments’ four founders are Monette Karr, Rick A. Reynolds, Dariusz Stramski and Jan “Kuba” Tatarkiewicz. The latter three hold doctorates. They developed their technology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, when they were trying to find out more about nanoparticles suspended in seawater. They realized there might be an optical solution to the problem in 2010, during a research cruise in the Arctic Ocean. Karr applied her software writing skills to help track the particles.
As they were validating their product, the founders engaged the services of UCSD’s Von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism, which introduced them to Cooper, a serial entrepreneur. Cooper came aboard as Manta’s CEO.
Another Ph.D. holder, David Fairhurst of South Carolina, is an adviser to the business “I call him the grandfather of nanoparticle characterization,” Cooper said.
The Triton Technology Fund, part of Vertical Venture Partners, provided an undisclosed amount of seed funding for Manta Technologies. Manta is currently working on its series A funding round.
For now, the business occupies space in the EvoNexus technology incubator in a University Towne Center office building. Its instrument is in the prototype stage. The finished product will be about the size of a microwave oven. The company will take a page from the razor industry to make money: It plans to sell both the instrument and consumables – in this case cuvettes, or containers for samples. The business is developing its own intellectual property.
The business also plans to get a jump-start on revenue by providing testing services for clients, Cooper said. Though the move deviates from Manta’s business plan of selling instruments, it will be worth the trouble, the CEO said.
If all goes as planned, Manta’s investors may eventually exit by selling the company to another scientific instrument company, and the nanoscale equivalent to following that car will be in another detective’s hands.