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Nano Start-up Senses Greener Pastures
BY DARRYL NELSON (profile) | November 11, 2002

Local nanotechnology start-up Quantum Precision Instruments (QPI) is working to develop a foundation metrological technology for nano scale processes. If successful, the technology could provide the platform for a range of measurement and sensing devices with truly quantum-level accuracy. But the venture will almost certainly be forced to leave Australia to gain the capital necessary to continue.

Dr Marek Michalewicz, founder and CEO, explains that total investment so far in QPI represents A$250,000, comprising $200,000 in cash from minority private investors and the rest in-kind contributions towards development. In order to raise the required next-stage funding, QPI is now in discussions with overseas financial and commercial funding bodies. "We applied for a Start Grant last year, but we were unfortunate," he adds.

Having been assured the venture had a strong case, Dr Michalewicz says it was "rather disappointing" to then miss out. But even more frustrating, the Start Grant was one of the few local funding opportunities he feels QPI could qualify for: "Venture companies in Australia are usually looking for more mature companies. In terms of starting something, they're very risk-averse here."

That QPI has now been forced to look abroad is symptomatic of the kind of difficulty new technology ventures face in Australia. When it comes to funding, very few are given the opportunity to even get started.

The science of measurement

QPI is developing a technology platform designed to be at the heart of nano scale developments across a range of applications. "What we offer is the metrology - the science of measurement - for the development of nanotechnologies," says Dr Michalewicz. "Lots of artefacts will have to be measured at the atomic level, and currently not many devices in the world can do that with the level of precision required."

Dr Michalewicz hopes the QPI technology will eventually form the foundation of MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems) and NEMS (nano electro-mechanical systems) sensors, which are used to apply the production processes of integrated circuits, as well as a number of other applications. MEMS technology is already used today in applications like inkjet printer heads.

As those production processes tend more and more towards the nano scale, however, even greater precision is required to take accurate measurements according to the principles of quantum phenomena. QPI believes its nanotechnology will solve this problem and, if successful, the company stands a very good chance of helping revolutionise production processes at the sub-100 nanometres level.

The great Australian barrier

Dr Michalewicz explains that the venture is still in a rather early stage, but "coming along very nicely." QPI is currently developing a prototype in the Cavendish Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Physics at Cambridge University, UK.

It has already trade marked the name 'nanoTrek' for its product family, and it's currently building an IP position. "We have an international patent application lodged in 31 countries, with 62 claims to define a technology platform," says Dr Michalewicz.

The patent has been approved in Australia, and the very-important US decision is expected within the next 6 months. Dr Michalewicz says he's "fairly confident" it won't be challenged.

However, whatever success the venture does have eventually, it is increasingly unlikely it will be as an Australian development. Dr Michalewicz reluctantly admits it's most probable his venture will have to leave Australia to be realised, as it's usually a normal condition of investment that you have to be located in the country of the grant.

"If funding doesn't come from Australia then we'll have to leave," he says. "It's very unfortunate, as I'd prefer to be here. We have very strong overseas relationships, like with the UCLA, and could do lots to help local developments."

Next week, nanotech planet will take a closer look at QPI's unique technological proposition, as well as some of the possible applications.

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 Opinions from the community
It's ironic that Dr Craig Fowler, director of Innovation and Incentives, Ernst & Young has said in his 'Smaller, Cleaner, Cheaper, Faster, Smarter' report thatAustralia should focus on offering nano scale research facilities eg STMs etc.
It's going to be sad to find that analytically focused Australian company having to import nanoTrek equipment from overseas where venture capitalists will stick their necks out.
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