Ajay P. Malshe is the Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of NanoMech LLC. NanoMech LLC is a nanotechnology innovations platform company with major current nanomanufacturing and product foci in four application sectors. These sectors are Machining (ex. TuffTek®) and Lubrication (NanoGlideTM), Sustainable Retail Packaging (Guard-In-FreshTM), Biomedical and Defense. NanoMech is creating world class innovations and innovations based hi-tech job opportunities in Arkansas and US, at large. In this interview, Steve Waite talks to Ajay Malshe about NanoMech and his vision for nanotech in the decade ahead.
Ajay Malshe has received thirty one awards and recognitions for research, education and service achievements (1996-2010). The most recent prestigious recognitions, Frost & Sullivan 2005 Technology Excellence Award and 2006 Top 25 Micro and Nano Innovations from R&D Magazine and Micro/Nano Newsletter are due to his team's innovative contributions in the area of cBN-TiN nanocomposite coating and other related products. He is a Fellow of American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) and a Fellow of Institute of Physics, London, UK and is listed in Lexinton's Who's Who and Marquis Who's Who America.
Malshe is also 21st Century Endowed Chair Professor of Materials, Manufacturing Processes and Integrated Systems at the Department of Mechanical Engineering and adjunct-faculty of Micro Electronics and Photonics Graduate Program at the University of Arkansas. He is the Director of the Materials and Manufacturing Research Laboratories (MMRL; a cluster of 5 laboratories). Malshe has multidisciplinary research programs in the fields of nanomanufacturing, IC, MEMS and micro and nano device packaging and integration, and surface engineering for advanced machining. He has authored over 200 plus peer reviewed publications, 10 books / chapters, and holds 9 patents (4 licensed to industries). He has graduated over multiple graduate students, trained numerous post-doctoral fellows, and provided research experience to several undergraduate and high school students and school teachers. He has an extensive track record of global collaborations with academic institutions and companies. He is a member of professional societies such as ASME, SME, IEEE, MRS, ASEE and IMAPS.
SW: Great to speak with you today, Ajay. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. How are things coming along at NanoMech?
AM: It is a very exciting time and we are very busy. We are building and strengthening the company through investments in people, ideas and tools, in that order, to create a truly world-class enterprise. What that means is that we are bringing on new talent, from a world-class executive team including our recent hiring of Keith Blakely as CEO to eager and skilled young engineers, manufacturing, and administrative staff, all of whom are focused on our corporate mission of bringing truly innovative and exciting technologies into the commercial marketplace. Not a week goes by that we aren't involved with major industrial customers and partners to create high value nano-enabled product solutions. As importantly, we are excited and having fun making the transition from an R&D company to a profitable high tech commercial enterprise.
SW: NanoMech's business strategy is based on a concept you refer to as the Innovation Pipeline. Tell us about the concept and how it guides the company.
AM: The idea of Innovation Pipeline is perhaps a bit more than the words describe. We aren't just talking about a linear sequence of taking ideas from a laboratory setting to a feasibility stage and then further refining them to achieve alpha, beta, and finally commercial products. Instead, our "pipeline" is perhaps better thought of as a matrix; a combination of vertical and horizontal parallels fed by exciting work being done in academic and laboratory settings by students and postdocs (like multiple springs of water feeding into a lake to keep the freshness of water that provides life to marine animals and plants) and then examined and applied across a range of important markets by our engineering and business teams. We have found that in this way, we can work on innovations that may have a runway of two to four years from idea ("lightning in the bottle") to a commercialized product ("light bulb") while simultaneously investing in and establishing important and protectable technology platforms for broad market applications, addressing global problems. It is critical that we then align the developments and commercialization road maps of these innovations using strong interactions with customers and partners to ensure that we deliver what the market needs and in a timeline and at economics that are appropriate. This allows us to stay both properly focused and at the same time, continuously deliver new innovations and products. With this approach, we believe NanoMech will achieve great results in the near-term and remain strong in the years to come.
SW: NanoMech has four areas of focus in terms of business activity: Machining/Coatings, Lubrication, BioMedical/Defense technologies and Retail Packaging. Give us some perspective on NanoMech's Machining technology and business opportunities you are seeing in the market today.
AM: Manufacturing is, in my opinion, core to the success of any country and a major driver and source of innovation. One of the central processes in most manufacturing - either directly or indirectly - is machining. Current technologies are making materials strong and durable and demanding higher productivity but with increased consciousness on environmental safety and energy efficiency. We achieved a breakthrough innovation at NanoMech in what we refer to as our TuffTek® coating for cutting tools to machine steels and other related alloys. Steel and related alloys are at the heart of uncounted application areas spanning from heavy earth movers to equipment used in oil and gas exploration and production to automotive and aerospace industries - just to name a few! The most efficient machining of hardened steel is best accomplished using a man-made material called cubic boron nitride (cBN). TuffTek® is world's first cBN composite coating that has been successfully applied to a wide range of cutting tool insert geometries. This came out of my academic research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The product is manufactured using a patented platform technology that we believe will be disruptive in the area of nanomaterial coatings. Being the first with successful cBN coating in the market is a competitive advantage. We are finding great interest from major customers (and competitors) looking to take advantage of the performance and economic benefits that TuffTek can provide. Our hope is that the TuffTek® innovation can be rapidly assimilated in a traditionally conservative cutting tool market and NanoMech is forging a broad range of partnerships and commercial arrangements to make this happen. In the pipeline of TuffTek® innovations we have aligned a series of products based on new chemistries for coating, designs of tools and other parameters. But again we are balancing the act of laser focusing and keeping an eye on the future, to make sure revenue is king!
SW: What kind of research and commercial activities do you see in the Lubricants business for NanoMech?
AM: Lubricants are another key building block of the manufacturing infrastructure in the US and other countries. In fact, the Department of Energy has reported that in industrialized nations, the annual cost of friction and wear related energy and material losses is estimated to be between 5 and 7% of their gross national products. In the US, that represents nearly $1 trillion per year! So as we are building a Green Economy, focusing on ways to reduce energy losses is as equally important as building new sources to harvest energy. As we have learned over years, current lubricant chemistries are largely at their limit and, in many cases, represent challenges to the environment as well. NanoMech's innovation in lubrication is a product called NanoGlide®; a multicomponent chemistry system delivering new lubrication characteristics based on molecular design considerations and which can be delivered in the form of an additive, a grease or a spray. As we begin to design and deliver particles of functionalized lubricants with many of the chemical groups in the nanometer size range, our classical way of thinking about solids versus liquids is challenged. Today, we are focused on commercializing the product through installation of our initial phase-I pilot production unit, while working closely with strategic customers and setting up a desired supply chain. Again this innovation is founded on a simple but powerful patent pending manufacturing platform. The pipeline of NanoGlideTM innovations will offer application specific chemistries and forms. This breakthrough really came about to address a timely need when my students and I could not find a source where we could buy a "bucketful" of nanoparticles of lubricant chalcogenides for a funded project at the University of Arkansas... "need is mother of invention!"
SW: What type of work is NanoMech doing in the Biomedical/Defense area and what is the commercial potential of the work?
AM: The cross pollination of platform innovations and continuous infusion of new innovations is one of the strengths of NanoMech and as the Founder and CTO I cherish that dearly. As an evidence of this, in the biomedical area we are working on developing multifunctional coatings and surfaces for biomedical implants to provide better health care and this is realized using one of the core platform IPs of NanoMech from the development of TuffTek®. For the defense sector, we are exploiting a combination of our current IP platform and infusing new IP to make body armors smarter to protect our troops fighting in harsh and asymmetric combat conditions. These are some of the major breakthroughs in the product pipeline and we will have formal product announcements and launches in due course. The somewhat sensitive nature of these markets makes it difficult to describe them publicly at this time.
SW: The retail packaging business seems like it has a lot of upside. What is NanoMech working on in this area?
AM: NanoMech, unlike many nanotech businesses, was founded in the middle of the country, in what some people refer to as "Wal-Mart country", where Wal-Mart and other business like Tyson Foods and JB Hunt are great role models of entrepreneurship; not unlike Google, Microsoft and others on the west coast. Being in the retailing, food and transportation hub of the US, NanoMech is aggressive in helping and promoting innovations to address problems faced in these industries and building ties to such opportunities. NanoMech's work in this area is also a great example of building global partnerships, where IP is developed jointly with innovators from India and the US, in one of the cases. At this time, our focus is on building strategic partnerships where we will be addressing and easing particular "customer pain" in these markets.
SW: NanoMech recently brought on former NanoDynamics CEO, Keith Blakely, as CEO. We were pleased to see this move. What kind of qualities does Keith bring to NanoMech that made him attractive?
AM: NanoMech was founded in 2002 and had gone through Phase I in nucleating some initial key IPs and building product prototypes like other early stage "garage innovators". After that initial period of innovation and having established some confidence in our technologies and some early customer successes, the company was poised to begin the second phase of its growth model. Investment in the right People, Ideas and Tools is at the heart of that road map. In 2009, we conducted a national search to find an experienced, accomplished, and recognized leader who could drive the NanoMech bus in the right direction and help the organization by putting appropriately skilled people in the appropriate seats. In Keith we saw a unique blend of energy, passion, technical knowledge, business experience and communication skills. Since joining us, the company has undergone a major transition and is poised to take full advantage of the investments made over the last eight years. Today at NanoMech we have more than a century's worth of collective managerial experience in the areas of technical innovation, nanomaterials, corporate finance, marketing, and commercial operations. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with such a terrific team and have fun in building a world-class business.
SW: NanoMech is based in Arkansas. What are the advantages being based in that state for a company engaged in nanotech research, development and commercialization?
AM: Over the years, Arkansas gave the US and the world, skilled and accomplished figures such as Sam Walton, President Clinton, Senator Fulbright, known for international scholarships, Don Tyson, JB Hunt, and many others. So leadership and entrepreneurship are in the blood of the state. Combining the opportunities in retailing, food and transportation with product enhancements due to nanomaterials and manufacturing process innovations is a potent combination and one that we believe will offer explosive growth with tremendous upside. There are very few environments where similar combinations exist. This, combined with significant strategic investment in nanoscience, engineering and entrepreneurship by the University of Arkansas and the State and community leaders, is the best alignment of stars that one might expect. The State is eager to build a technology based economy to add to the blend of current economic drivers. Remember that in every century innovations in materials delivered new products and that is what we expect from nanomaterials here in Arkansas. I call that a real "stimulus."
SW: NanoMech has a relationship with the University of Arkansas. What is the role of academia and universities in nanotech innovation in the decade ahead?
AM: In the age where innovation and product lifetimes - from just a flash of lightning in the bottle (idea) to a ready-made light bulb and LED light (commercial product) - is often measured in years not decades, Universities are a critical source of new knowledge, skilled work forces, and new product ideas. In this way, they have tremendous opportunities in this century to be economic engines. For example, the University of Arkansas has exactly realized this opportunity and in partnership with the state and business leaders has put together an infrastructure to create, what I call "innovation supply chain," certainly in the nanotechnology area. Teams of world class researchers and educators like Professor Greg Salamo and others are building a Nano Science and Engineering Center on the foundation of already a national success of numerous nanotech breakthroughs and company spin offs. Senator Pryor and other members of the state delegation, Governor Beebe and their staff, the University's past and current administration led by Chancellors White and Gearhart, respectively, and many business leaders have provided their expertise to build significant innovation and enterprise centers and to attract the best workforce and facility. Agencies like Accelerate Arkansas, led by career entrepreneurs like James Hendren and Jerry Adams, are connecting dots in the state for networking. And Who's Who of National Entrepreneurs like Jim Phillips, Keith Blakely, Clete Brewer and others are investing their time and funds in these growing companies. Today, NanoMech is an integral part of this vibrant growth in the state. NanoMech is a spin-off from the University of Arkansas in 2002 and is an example of what I described above.
SW: We've been talking to other nano researchers about the concept of matter as software of the 21st Century. Do you see nanomaterials becoming software in the years ahead?
AM: It is an important observation that from Stone Age to Copper and Bronze age to Golden age to last, which was the Silicon age, innovations in materials inspired innovations in new products for improving the quality of life for people. For example, without innovation in silicon material, there would be no Internet today and everything that follows - Google, Facebook, iPhones, etc.! Every material can be engineered in three ways: chemistry, structure, and form. Nanoscale is a powerful dimension for engineering new materials with high precision and it is not limited to only one type of material. So imagine in front of you a 21st century tool box of nano scale chemistries, nano scale structures, and nanoscale forms (1D, 2D, and 3D) allowing you to engineer metals, ceramics, semiconductors, polymers, and their combinations. You quickly realize you have just put together an ensemble of infinite but realistic possibilities to tailor new materials and products across various business sectors from energy to transportation to defense to retailing to food and others. It is important to note that with global population on the rise, and natural resources being limited, we will need abilities to conserve materials, allow less usage, higher productivity and conduct life functions in the most sustainable ways. Nanoengineered materials precisely address that need for the growing global demands. In fact, I would like your readers to note another key observation that "without the success of advanced materials like nanomaterials there is little or no success of new green technologies, for example in the areas of pure water and air quality or energy conservation and production."
SW: There has been a lot of discussion about the environment, health and safety of nanomaterials, and nanotechnology, in general. Wha's your view on this issue?
AM: With every new innovation there is a new responsibility. It was true in the Stone Age and it was true in the Silicon Age and it will be true in this Nanomaterials Age. I view consciousness of the nanomaterials supply chain, awareness and education to gain the respect of the society, due diligence and good business practices by industries and government providing proper funding support to generate credible data, particularly to small growing companies, as vital. These views and actions are at the heart of applying successful measures to avoid perceptions and use facts for unleashing myriad opportunities offered by nanomaterials in numerous sectors for enhancing the quality of life and creating well paid jobs for the growing population. The key is that we create the balance between brilliant and rapid growth in nanotech and nanomaterials and products, with the pace of developing facts on EHS for these products, as otherwise we have not yet learned important lessons from the past.
SW: You believe that nanotechnology can play an important role in bringing manufacturing back to the United States. Can you tell us why you believe this?
AM: Economic engine sits on a three legged stool: innovation, manufacturing and service. In the last decades, as a country in zeal of seeking "good, fast and cheap" products, we shipped lot of parts and portions of these legs out of the US. In this process, the rest of the world has learned a lot of skills from the US. But one fact that we forgot was that "need is the mother of inventions and innovations." One experiences needs when you make something and when you serve something. When manufacturing is exported, and service is partly exported, I am not sure we are experiencing needs which will keep pipeline of scientific inventions and engineering innovations coming back and refueling us to keep us competitive globally. In this complex global scenario, I believe the US cannot afford, and must support scientific nanotech discoveries and inventions, as well as equally and effectively support their engineering demonstration and manufacturing for creating real stimulus for job creation. The US has long been the beacon for innovation and creativity. I strongly recommend that in nanomaterials and nanomanufacturing we do not stop only at funding science but also fund major efforts in engineering and manufacturing where the fruits of such efforts will be rapidly realized and help to reestablish the US in global competition as the best place to do business - at all levels.
SW: How do you see nanotechnology in the U.S. versus the rest of the world? Do you see the competitive position of the U.S. in nanotechnology strengthening or slipping in the future?
AM: I believe that the US should preserve its "risk taking" culture in the arena of innovation and allow for rapid growth in the nanotech space. US Universities are still world class and are creating nanotech inventions and innovations. However, the rest of the world is adopting this culture and time is not our ally. We must focus on the model of creating new value added products, technologies, and services while keeping a certain level of effort in commoditized technologies as well so that the pipeline of nanotech innovations will keep the pond of our national economy fresh and vibrant.
SW: One last question, Ajay. What are the most important business lessons you have learned since launching NanoMech?
AM: Value People, Ideas and Tools in that order; hire the best people in what they do and make sure they are in the right seat so they can be happy in delivering their best and are successful in their careers. In such a situation, the entire organization achieves success while delivering both harmony and growth! Last but not the least, always remember that "time will never come back and the only constant is change."
SW: Thanks again for your time today, Ajay. We wish you and colleagues at NanoMech all the best in the future.