Nanotechnology has gained traction in the last decade as researchers are identifying more and more potential applications. Nanotechnology involves the control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale (normally below 100 nanometres) and it has become key to tackle important technical challenges in healthcare, environment, energy and electronics.
However, investments in nanotechnology only started to multiply by the end of the 20th century, when some great nanotech discoveries (such as carbon nanotubes) were made. By 2000, nanomaterials were already used in consumer products such as sports equipment or digital cameras.
Currently, the nanotechnology market is growing at such a fast pace that, according to Global Nanotechnology Market report by Research & Markets, its value will exceed $125,000 million by 2024. Nanusens is revolutionizing electronics through nanotechnology by creating the world’s smallest sensors.
Dr. Montanyà set up a Baolab in 2003, where he started to develop a breakthrough technology for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing. Some years later, he and his team founded Nanusens to continue developing and improving that technology, which has been maturing for 17 years now. Firstly set up in Barcelona, the current headquarters are located in the UK.
“It all started with Baolab, and the reason why I founded this company is a curious story”, said Dr. Montanyà.
A mistake that put them into the right path
“After working for several companies as a telecommunications engineer, I went back to university where I started my PhD studies and I started to learn about MEMS. There was a professor there who told us ‘ if anyone is capable of designing a switch actuating at low-voltage, that would be a massive business because the industry is searching for that’, so I took the challenge.
When I designed the switch, I got a local grant from Generalitat and some funding from private investors. I founded Baolab and, after two years developing the product, I went to the US to show my results to several companies. Then I learnt that my professor was wrong: the industry wasn’t looking for that specific device! Yet I identified a different business opportunity, so I started to work on it”- told us Dr. Montanyà.
Industry opportunities and interests
Through the years, the Nanusens team has been able to develop an innovative technology that shrinks MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) sensor structures so that their nanoscale sensor structures are up to ten times smaller. Current MEMS structures have feature sizes of one micron or larger, however, Nanusens’ NEMS (Nano Electro Mechanical Systems) structures have features of 0.3 microns or less. This is a 10x area reduction, which is the smallest size ever reached.
But apart from the smallest size (and the cost-saving benefits of CMOS shrinking to smaller nodes), they have also been able to remove the barrier to high volume production as they can use any CMOS fab.
Currently, the main market is smartphones, but there are many new applications coming:
“The main driver has been smartphones because OEMs are constantly trying to add new features. And that’s why more and more sensors have been added to the phones. But since several years ago there are new markets that are emerging, for example, automotive”.
Challenges and difficulties
“The main challenge is to fundraise. Semiconductors are very demanding in capital, so you need a lot of money and it takes time. Some years ago it took 3-6 months to run a test, but nowadays it takes 6-9 months because of the overloading of fabs in the last few years”, explained Dr. Montanyà.
But apart from fundraising, Dr. Montanyà told us how important and challenging it is to hire the right team. “It is something you are not explained while studying engineering”- laughed Dr. Montanyà. “It took me some time, but I would say I managed to find a very good team. I had to learn to hire the right people, and I found out that this can make a huge difference between the failure and success of a business”.
How Nanusens’ and Strata’s paths crossed
An investor who met the CEO of Strata put them in contact and, from that moment onwards, Dr. Montanyà liked their approach and decided to count on them.
“I am very happy to have met Strata, they did a very good job. It was surprising for me how well they understood our technology, how they got inside the project and the technology. I got the feeling that they understood things I hadn’t even explained, and it’s because they learnt very easily. They made a very good proposal because they understood the project very well and they have a deep knowledge of what is needed”-said Dr. Montanyà.
Expectations for the near future
As there is no standard in MEMS, Nanusens aims to set a standard by using a CMOS manufacturing process.
“The last step is that NEMS will not be a separate chip, but they will be integrated into the digital processor”- said Dr. Montanyà.
Nanusens aims to have their technology in all smartphones and portable devices in a few years. “Being able to make electronics smaller at a lower cost and higher performance is the demand of the industry, and it’s something no one can compete with”- concluded Dr. Montanyà.