Chance discovery has led to successful business
Until Bob Carr's technology was launched, laboratory scientists who wanted to view and analyse individual nanoparticles needed a £250,000 electron microscope and the process took up to four hours
Nanosight's equipment costs £15,000 and does as good a job in just 30 seconds.
When microbial biochemist Bob Carr realised that he had discovered a way of viewing tiny virus-sized nanoparticles through an optical microscope, he wasn't initially too sure about its usefulness.
However, the September 11 attacks in 2001 led to greatly heightened concerns for bio-security and an urgent interest in any ability to see virus sized particles in the atmosphere, rapidly and simply.
Suddenly, his new technology had a huge potential market.
Carr's 20 years experience at a UK government research laboratory near Salisbury (presumably Porton Down - Ed) gave him the confidence to buy some surplus equipment and set up his own laboratory in a unit on the nearby Old Sarum airfield business park.
He began developing his idea further, initially financed with some particle detection contracts he won from UK government agencies.
It's taken him six years and he's had to jump through a lot of hoops, but Bob Carr now has a clutch of international patents to his name, is chief technical officer of Nanosight, the company he founded, and is a substantial shareholder in the business.
Over the same period, worldwide interest in nanoparticles has mushroomed, along with demand for his company's know-how and equipment.
Nanosight is now trading profitably and is supplying equipment to international corporations, including food, chemicals and pharmaceutical majors such as Roche, Unilever, GSK, ICI, 3M, and Nestle.
"Nanoparticles - tiny particles much smaller than a micron in size - are now being used in all sorts of products and processes," Bob Carr explains.
"Manufacturers have realised that some of their existing products can display hugely altered and improved properties when they are simply reduced to a far smaller size.
"Titanium dioxide, for example, is normally white and is commonly used as an industrial pigment.
"If you make the particle sizes small enough, it becomes transparent to visible light but still blocks ultra-violet rays.
"This makes it an ideal ingredient for sun creams - but the particles need to be the right size and manufacturers need a quick and cost-effective way of verifying particle size".
While nanoparticles are now being included in everyday products, such as foods and cosmetics, until Carr put his patented technology on the market, checking particle size and the distribution of different sized particles was an expensive and slow process, only economically viable for high-value products.
Now, with Nanosight equipment costing only a few thousand pounds and taking less than a minute to carry out an analysis, nanoparticles can be economically checked for quality, for both research purposes or for mass production.
The initial discovery came when he was using a prism and lasers to view bacteria through a conventional optical microscope.
He was concerned to find that the image he was seeing suggested that the sample was contaminated with some ultra-small particles.
It was only after he had checked and double checked the sample that he realised that the tiny 'blobs' on the image must be viruses - not normally visible under even the highest magnification optical microscopes.
Carr developed and refined the laser and prism combination, and set about getting some software written so that users could measure, count and analyse different-sized nanoparticles, rather than just look at them.
"I knew this was important enough to patent," he explains, "but its full potential hadn't really struck me until I discussed it with John Knowles, a senior business executive with experience in the optics industries.
"As a result of that conversation, Knowles became the co-founder of Nanosight and is still our chairman".
Carr wrote the first patent specification himself.
"I thought that if I was capable of inventing the product, writing the patent specification would be easy.
"The experience convinced me of the value of using a professional patent attorney".
Nanosight now works with Nash Matthews, a firm that has drafted subsequent patent specifications and have secured patent protection for the company in the UK, Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, and the USA.
Martin Lipscombe is the patent attorney at Nash Matthews who works most closely with Nanosight.
"Our experience of working with Bob and his colleagues," Martin says, "has shown how valuable it is to have a sound policy on intellectual property.
"On the strength of its IP portfolio, Nanosight has been able to attract investment and has licensed some of its technology to Smiths Industries.
"That company is now developing applications in the field of homeland security, where the speed and low cost of Nanosight's particle analysis technology has huge advantages.
"Smiths is an international company with 60,000 employees.
"It's reassuring for Nanosight to know that they have a major organisation as a partner, with a vested interest in helping Nanosight to protect its IP".
For a small business like Nanosight, patents can help the directors to negotiate on a more equal footing with much larger companies - both potential licensees, such as Smiths Industries, and product distributors.
Nanosight already has distribution agreements in the Far East, Europe and the USA and is negotiating with potential distributors in other countries.
Already, around half of Nanosight's sales are outside the UK and Bob Carr expects exports to account for the majority of orders over the next couple of years.
"Most of the interest we get from potential customers follows technical papers I give at nanotechnology conferences around the world," he says.
"This year alone, I've been invited to speak at major events in Finland, Estonia, Germany, Spain, France, Japan, the USA and Canada".
Nanosight's scientific team in Salisbury now numbers nine researchers, several of whom have PhDs in optoelectronics.
Development capital has come from the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA), venture capital investor Strathdon and two rounds of financing from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).
Nesta also helped to find and recruit Nanosight's chief executive officer, Jeremy Warren, freeing up Bob Carr's time so he can concentrate on technical improvements and new product development.
"Our two existing products," explains Bob Carr, "already enable customers to carry out quite a lot of analysis of particle size and distribution".
"Our next generation will provide much greater analytical capability and will have many potential applications in medical diagnostics."
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