Nanotech's growing

Start-up Nano-Add: The future is in plant material nanocellulose.

Very few people in the world understand the chemistry of trees, says Nano-Add CEO Motti Koren. He says that Nano-Add founder and R&D manager Prof. Michael Ioelovich is one of them. Ioelovich studied tree science at the University of Latvia, where he learned to break down a tree's structure into nanoparticles. He has written scores of articles and books on the subject.

The chemical solutions of these nanoparticles is a kind of wonder material that when added to other materials reinforces the latter's existing characteristics, and add new ones. What is flexible becomes even more so; what is strong becomes mighty.

Koren says, "Nanomania began in the late 20th century, with the development of electron scanning microscopes that could sees materials at the atomic level, and the field took off. The new line of thought holds that miniature has revived old fantasies of tiny machines that could be inserted into the body to make repairs from the inside. Of course, that is still science fiction.

"However, what isn’t science fiction is our developing ability to cut ceramics or metals into minute pieces, so that their surface area is very large, enabling the materials to bind much more strongly with other materials, as well as with itself. This ability enables the development of very strong glues used in missile and aviation technologies."

Nanotechnology has mainly developed in the magical world of inorganic materials, such as ceramics and metals, particularly in their strength and adhesiveness. Nano-Add, however, operates in a completely different field - it works on organic material, cellulose.

A wonder additive

Nano-Add started as an experiment by Ioelovich, an expert in cellulose, in his kitchen. After successfully producing initial material, he contacted Yozmot-Granot Initiative Center in Migdal Ha'Emek, which invested $400,000 in the project, and brought in Koren as CEO. Koren, a chemical engineer with a B.Sc. from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, previously worked for Vishay Intertechnology Inc. (NYSE:VSH) as an examiner of acquisitions of and investments in chemicals companies.

Nano-Add business development manager Dr. Avner Amir, an expert in developing start-ups, and an Alex Leykin, a chemical engineer, joined later. Leykin coordinates the company's engineering and science aspects.

Cellulose is the building material for plants. "It's possible to harvest 7.5 billion tons of cellulose worldwide, without cutting down a single tree, says Ioelovich. Cellulose is currently used as raw material in the fiber industry - cotton, wool, and paper. The food industry uses cellulose as a calorie-free additive for improving digestion, and as an additive for improving the texture in a range of diet products. The pharmaceuticals industry uses cellulose as an adhesive for active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and to make easy-to-swallow capsules.

The basic chemical in cellulose is Microcrystalline Cellulose (MCC), a super polymer, giving cellulose its strength. Cellulose can be currently cut into micron-sized particles, but anyone familiar with nanotechnology, knows that microns are long since passé.

"Globes": What are the advantages of your material, compared with micron-sized materials?

Ioelovich: "Dissolving acids are now used to cut cellulose into particles. This process is expensive, energy consuming, and contaminates the environment, due to the need to get rid of the acid. It is also less effective, compared with our process.

"The advantage of cellulose is its string crystals, but this is also what makes it hard to dismantle. We look for the flaws in the crystal where a cut is then made; it's a lot easier there. We don’t use acid for cutting. All that's needed is to briefly soak the material in acid. The cut is made hydraulically, in other words, taking the particles out of the water. Other material is then added to prevent the crystals from reforming."

Koren: "The nanoparticles can be added to water, powder, or gel, depending on what you want to do with the cellulose.

What do you do with it?

Amir: "The material we produce has several features. For instance, it can improve adhesiveness. The food industry, for example, can use our material as a healthy way for adhering ground meat for hamburgers. The material can also be used provide oil-like qualities to food, without using oil. The material is also calorie-free. Because the material adds viscosity to thin foods, it could be very popular for diet foods.

"Another important use for the material is to prevent separation. Over time, liquid drugs or ointments often separate, with the API concentrating in one place, with the result that a dosage is either too concentrated or not concentrated enough. The addition of nanocellulose makes the drug uniform in texture and in its API. This is also good for cosmetics and paints, as well as many other applications."

Where will you begin?

Koren: "The material is being tested in a mini pilot program. Later, we'll see if we can manufacture industrial quantities, using full-sized equipment.

"We recently had a breakthrough. We established ties with a leading international chemicals company. This company makes products in all the fields we've been talking about, as well as many others. They helped us realize the full potential of our product."

Amir: "At the moment, this chemicals company is supporting us through its venture capital fund. The incubator and private investors have also invested in us. They also give us a lot of practical support. They help us with know-how, send us products to try to make improvements, and direct us to approach the market in the best way.

"Within a few months, we'll begin to focus, and chose one or two of their products for improvement. We're now seeking additional financing from them as well as other investors in order to set up an industrial-scale pilot.

"We want this company to be a strategic partner, but we don’t want to sell too large a part of Nano-Add too soon. We also want to carry out production in Israel. That's why we're talking about cooperation, not selling."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes.co.il - on April 27, 2005

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