Incubator’s new tenant seeks cutting edge

By From page A14 | October 07, 2012

A new startup company at UC Davis aims to bring you a better shave through semiconductor manufacturing technology. Nano-Sharp Inc. plans to use silicon wafers to make razor blades and surgical tools far more cheaply than current silicon or ceramic blades.

It’s one of three new companies in the College of Engineering’s incubator, the Engineering Translational Technology Center. The new businesses hope to grow into viable companies that attract private funding.

“Every single one of these companies is looking at a multibillion-dollar market,” said Jim Olson, the center’s business specialist and a visiting assistant professor at the UCD Graduate School of Management.

Nano-Sharp co-founder Saif Islam, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said inspiration came when his team was working on making solar cells from silicon wafers. They were etching the wafers to create thin vertical walls standing up from the surface.

“We accidentally made some ‘bad’ walls that were very sharp,” he said. “We realized that we could mount them and use them as blades.”

Ceramic or silicon blades are extremely sharp and keep an edge much longer than metal blades. But they are very expensive, so their use is limited to high-end kitchen knives and surgical tools. For example, a ceramic scalpel for eye surgery costs about $600, Islam said.

Conventional blades are made by sharpening the edge of a silicon wafer, Islam said. In contrast, his new, patented technique creates blades across the surface of the wafer.

The cutting edge of the blade is just a few atoms across, Islam said. “They have atomic sharpness approaching that of a diamond blade that metal blades cannot exhibit.”

The performance of these crystalline blades can be improved using technologies developed by the semiconductor industry over the past 50 years, Islam said.

Islam recently won a Proof of Concept award from the University of California to develop a prototype to attract private investors to back the company.

Co-founders of the company are Logeeswaran V. Jayaraman, a postdoctoral researcher in Islam’s laboratory, and David Horsley, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Other new tenants in the incubator are mRhythm and Barobo Inc. Founded by professor Tingrui Pan of the department of biomedical engineering, mRhythm is developing sensors for personal home health monitoring. The small, flexible sensors can be worn by patients at home to record data such as heart rate, breath sounds and patterns, transmitting the information wirelessly to health care professionals.

Educational robotics company Barobo, founded by professor Harry Cheng of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and former graduate student Graham Ryland, has its physical office at the Davis Roots incubator in the Hunt-Boyer Mansion downtown. It is working with the Engineering Translational Technology Center for advice on business development and fundraising.

ETTC was established in 2010 to help technology startups, based on intellectual property developed at UCD, grow and attract support from external financial investors.

— UC Davis News Service

Andy Fell

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