According to Aymeric Sallin, the CEO of venture capital firm NanoDimension, the science of nanotechnology is about to impact traditional technologies on a scale similar to the way Uber is revolutionising the taxi industry in our cities today. And he should know. As the head of a firm that invests at an early stage in companies using breakthrough nanotechnology, he understands how working at the atomic and molecular level is about to change the global technological landscape.
Sallin has specialised in taking science out of the laboratory and into the sphere of manufacturing since he launched his company in 2002. He believes that breakthrough science must be converted into disruptive technology to help revolutionise entire marketplaces. “I love what I do: translating science from the lab into successful companies that sell products with the power to reshape entire industries. Those technologies also help solve some of the biggest challenges in society,” explains Sallin, who is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.
Success is all about fusion
His history of fusing his passions with entrepreneurship began when he launched his first company while studying physical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). Back then in the early 1990s, his passion was snowboarding, and he aspired to become a professional until he was thwarted by injury.
But Sallin refused to let his injuries end his relationship with the sport, so he founded a company that would keep him close to the slopes and his fellow athletes. “The company managed a team of professional snowboarders,” he explains. “We won 12 European and World titles between ’96 and ’98, shot movies on volcanoes and big mountains, and competed around the world. It was a wonderful escape from the labs and classrooms.” After completing his laboratory work at EPFL, Sallin pursued a career as a strategy consultant at the global management consultancy Bain & Co. From there, his passion for nanotechnology and entrepreneurship moved him to create the first-ever venture capital firm focused on nanotechnology. “The best way for me to contribute to the emergence of this sector was not with consulting or advice, but with capital to enable entrepreneurs to set up and build their companies,” he explains. As a result, Sallin started NanoDimension back in 2002.
He recalls it was tough to begin with. It was just after the Internet bubble had burst, and investors were not keen on taking risks in an emerging field with a new team that had no track record. “Metaphorically, I had to break my head through a wall of challenges. It was either my head or the wall that would eventually break. Luckily, in my case, it was the wall that ended up breaking first. It took about four years of team building, deal-flow cultivation, business model development, and pitching the promise of nanotech to just about anyone who would listen,” says Sallin. Today, he explains, he has teams in Switzerland and Silicon Valley, and with several hundred millions of dollars deployed globally, NanoDimension is the largest venture capital firm specialising in nanotechnology.
It was the American physicist Richard Feynman who in 1959 first suggested the possibility of manipulating atoms and molecules. By 1981 nanoscale science had become a reality with the development of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope. Things have moved on significantly since then.
“Today, we are able to organise atoms and design molecules the way we want and need,” Sallin explains. “This gives scientists an unprecedented level of control, and allows them to exploit the change of physical properties that occurs at the nanoscale.” This ability to organise atoms and design molecules has opened the door to applications that no one could ever have imagined just a few years ago. These include more efficient, targeted drugs and vaccines, new water treatment systems, next-generation energy production and storage devices, and many more.
Nano-enabled products have made significant contributions to the development of more effective medicines. NanoDimension has several biopharmaceutical firms in its investment portfolio that focus on the development of new therapies for the treatment of cancer, fibrosis, inflammation, and other diseases.
One example is ARMO BioSciences, a biopharmaceutical company that has a leading programme in Phase I clinical trials, and has treated over 200 patients in under two years. “The research process can move forward so fast because existing components (or molecules) can be used and then repackaged using nanotechnology,” explains Sallin. “These targeted treatments can circulate within the human body, accumulate at disease sites, and deliver their payload more effectively, right where it’s needed. This is not science fiction; we currently have several companies involved in clinical trials in the US.”
As an example, he shows an X-ray of a patient’s triple negative breast cancer tumour and points out: “Nearly 90 percent of this tumour had disappeared four weeks after being treated with one of the drugs in the clinical trials that I just mentioned.” He hopes to have these treatments approved by the health authorities and commercialised in the near future.
Nanotech today and tomorrow
Nanotechnology is also being used to develop materials and devices that emulate human biology. These devices combine aspects of nanotechnology from the physical and life sciences, and enable living human cells or blood to grow in micro-engineered environments that mimic physiological conditions better than traditional methods. This technology provides a window into the inner workings of the human body, and can be used to predict the human response to drug treatments, chemicals or foods with greater precision than traditional cell cultures or animal-based testing. “This could well become the ultimate personalised medicine of the future, as one could test potential treatments in personalised chips before moving to the patient,” Sallin predicts.
In countries such as Israel and Singapore, waste water is recycled many times for reuse. Existing nanofiber technology is already being used to eliminate as much as 99 percent of contaminants including viruses and bacteria. However, hormonal compounds from agriculture and industrial waste also make their way into the waste water and aren’t removed by current treatments. This can cause major disruption to entire ecosystems. “There are rivers where all the fish are female and regions where girls are fertile at the age of eight. If we can functionalise nanoparticles to identify cancer cells in the human body, there is no doubt in my mind that we can also soon do this with functionalised nanomembranes that remove these compounds,” Sallin says.
Global population growth, changing demographics, and urbanisation are all set to put extreme pressure on our existing energy resources, and nanotechnology can also help to ease some of these pressures. “Climate change and exploding energy demands are a reality. We are the last generation that can do something to reverse these trends,” says Sallin. Storing electrons and converting photons all happens at the nanoscale. More efficient batteries, solar cells, CO2 capture technologies, and other energy-related solutions will all be based on nanotechnology.
Unleashing disruptive technology
Nanotechnology has large-scale applications in both energy storage and solar power generation. Using nanomaterials for lithium-ion batteries, for example, could extend the storage capacity of batteries. The use of nanomaterials could also significantly increase the light harvesting and energy generation capacity of solar cells. As both batteries and renewable energies become more efficient and cheaper, demand is likely to continue to rise in the coming years. The technology also has a part to play in creating sustainable cities. View Dynamic Glass, also part of NanoDimension’s portfolio, has created glass with an electrochromic coating inside that can be tinted on demand to control how much light and heat enter a building, without losing visibility. By applying an electrical current, ions move between multiple layers coated onto the glass to keep out unwanted glare and heat, while reducing the overall energy consumption of a building by as much as 20 percent. This precise, adjustable environmental control results in increased occupant comfort, which Sallin explains can influence everything from patient recovery in hospitals to employee performance at work.
Bringing science out of the laboratory and into production takes time, infrastructure, and capital. For View Dynamic Glass, it took around eight years. But Sallin believes the rewards are worth it. One factory has the potential to make USD 125 million profit per production line annually, he says, while it costs just USD 100 million to build. So if one estimates that 10 percent of new commercial buildings worldwide will be fitted with dynamic glass, one would need about 500 factories just to meet demand. “This is exactly what nanotechnology is about: disrupting an entire sector, addressing a real problem, and evolving into a massive player,” explains Sallin.
The nanotechnology market is expanding fast. Last year, for example, the global market for nanotechnology products was valued at around USD 26 billion, according to an estimate by BCC Research. The market research company RNCOS predicts that the nanotech market will increase to USD 76 billion by 2020. Sallin is confident that nanotechnology is not destined to become the next dotcom bubble. “The first generation of nanotechnology is already here, and it’s starting to impact every industry. It will get bigger every year for decades to come.” He knows that it will not all be smooth sailing. In Europe, he says, there is a tendency to focus on the potential risk presented by new technologies, while in the US regulators are treating new nanotechnology applications with caution. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a special programme on nanoparticles and nanostructures to check potential toxicity. “The scientific community takes these safety aspects very seriously,” says Sallin.
And yet, despite such enormous potential today, Sallin had to expand his company into the US because of a lack of compelling investment opportunities in Europe. With teams in Switzerland and Silicon Valley, NanoDimension now benefits from a global deal flow, and leverages infrastructure and talent wherever they are. “There is no shortage of brilliant scientists and leading universities in Europe, but unlike the US, they lack infrastructure, technicians, entrepreneurs, and a risk culture.”
Silicon Valley sets the standards
Sallin would like to see policymakers around the world understand what fundamental innovation means today, and what it requires, not just theoretically, but also on a practical level. He underscores that the globalisation of technology requires that science should move quickly out of the lab into an environment that facilitates scale, manufacturing, and commercialisation. “Companies and teams sometimes have to relocate to leverage infrastructure and talent at various stages,” he explains.
He fears that Europe is too dependent on funding doctoral grants through research budgets rather than focusing on the creation of manufacturing and commercialisation hubs that support ecosystems for innovation; this is a process that will take time. “Without leveraging Silicon Valley, we would not have been able to convert the science into technology,” Sallin explains.
Large-scale manufacturing can be located anywhere. Europe and Switzerland need to be ready to open up to opportunities to establish high-tech manufacturing centres and create high-value manufacturing jobs to keep up. “These high-tech hubs of manufacturing could establish the ecosystem where innovation happens, just as it does in Silicon Valley.”
The best piece of advice that Sallin could give to someone interested in entering the nanotech market is to look at it very pragmatically and with a product-focused approach. “Ask yourself, do I get a much better value proposition for my product, an order-of-magnitude cost advantage, and a much more efficient manufacturing process than with other competing technologies? If the answer is yes, go for it and don’t get distracted by all of the other things that this technology could achieve.”