Nanotechnology developed in Baltimore could help brighten household LED light bulbs or touch screens in the new year as startup Pixelligent prepares to ramp up manufacturing.
The Dundalk-based company is searching the region for space for a manufacturing facility capable of increasing its capacity to make nanocrystal coatings for electronics and semiconductors by 10 times or more.
It has been making small quantities of the products at its Holabird Business Park offices since moving from College Park in 2011 but foresees demand growing dramatically next year as devices that use the nanocrystals make it into consumers' hands for the first time.
That could lead Pixelligent to break even for the first time, and to expand its workforce by 50 percent. The potential has drawn the attention of some of Baltimore's deepest pockets as the city looks to build on a high-tech reboot of its manufacturing roots.
"We're entering the year with some very large customer activities," CEO Craig Bandes said, though he declined to name the customers, whom he called recognizable.
Pixelligent says its nanocrystal products are better than others because they spread tiny particles of zirconia evenly, which allows the coatings to remain free of cloudiness and to transfer light and heat efficiently. Zirconia, a substance sometimes used in place of diamonds, is hard, reflective and durable, like the precious gemstone.
Applied to LED lights, the nanocrystals allow more light out of a bulb without using more energy. They also prevent light from being trapped inside the bulb and heating it up, Bandes explained.
In a smartphone, tablet or touch-screen monitor, the nanocrystals can be applied in a layer that helps hide the electronics underneath, he said.
Pixelligent has the capacity to make as much as 4 tons a year, but it wants to produce 40 to 60 tons, Bandes said. The company is looking for about 25,000 square feet of space in the Baltimore area, preferably with some "chemistry infrastructure," he said.
In anticipation of large-scale orders to begin in the new year, the company already has sought large equipment that must be ordered far in advance. The new space could be ready as soon as the end of 2014, Bandes said.
That's something the company's investors have been counting on. Pixelligent has raised more than $17 million over the past four and a half years, much of it from Baltimore-area family offices, private companies that manage investments for wealthy individuals or families. United Arab Emirates-based WISE LLC and other investors have provided more, Bandes said.
The Abell Foundation has provided $3.1 million, foundation president Robert Embry said.
"One of the issues with nanoparticles was being able to produce them in volume. They had their reasons to think they could do that, and had already done it to some degree," Embry said. "They have proven they can do it in even greater volumes than they thought."
If the large orders start coming in next year as expected, company officials and investors say, Pixelligent could break even for the first time.
An $8 million contract through a technology development program of the National Institute for Standards and Technology in 2010 has boosted business. NIST provided $4 million, while Pixelligent and partner Brewer Science put up the other half, Bandes said.
The increased demand and production could drive hiring that would bring the company's work force from 32 people to 50 over the next year, Bandes said.
Pixelligent is one of several high-tech firms that could expand in Baltimore.
City officials this month approved the sale of 8 acres to Rockville-based biotechnology company Emergent BioSolutions to allow for the large-scale production of flu vaccines for the federal government.
ENeura won approval this month from the Food and Drug Administration for a device to treat migraine pain.
Pixelligent and eNeura are two of 20 companies in which Abell has invested to draw technology development and manufacturing to Baltimore, Embry said.
Pixelligent hopes to soon have something to show consumers for its efforts, which date back to research at the University of Maryland, College Park. As the company prepares for large-scale production, Bandes said, officials are "aggressively" pursuing customers and urging them to move their own products from development to manufacturing.