Peak Nanosystems LLC is using small-scale technology to make a big impact.
The company uses extremely thin layers of polymers to manipulate materials in new ways, allowing it to create products that can be lighter, smaller, more exact. It's "engineering at the virus level," CEO Jim Welsh said.
And it's doing that work in Ohio.
Welsh said he wants Peak Nano to be the "world's leading commercialization engine for nanotechnology." It's getting its start in optics, but he sees opportunities in a variety of other industries, like electric vehicles or food packaging.
The company got its start in 2016. Currently, Peak Nano has 54 employees, 37 of them in Ohio. Welsh said he could see that growing to 250 to 300 employees in the next few years. The company does not disclose annual revenue.
The initial plan was to do development in Ohio and production in Texas, Welsh said. But the company soon found that it made more sense to do it all in Ohio. It was more economical to build out the necessary clean rooms in the state, Welsh said, and the development team was interested in keeping close to the manufacturing operation. Plus, Ohio had a wealth of experienced employees in the polymer and machining spaces.
"It was pretty much a no-brainer, where Chad [Lewis] and I just looked at each other and said we need to keep this thing together in Ohio," Welsh said.
The gradient refractive index — GRIN for short — technology Peak Nanosystems is using mimics something found in nature in the eye. People were aware of it hundreds of years ago, but they couldn't quite figure out how to replicate it, said Mike Hus, senior vice president of engineering. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University were able to do so about 10 or 15 years ago.
That work became spinout company PolymerPlus, which Peak Nano acquired in the spring of 2020. PolymerPlus was science-heavy and needed support on commercialization and manufacturing in order to scale. The two companies had worked together on optics technology, said Lewis, president for Peak Nano.
"It was just a perfect marriage," Lewis said.
Currently, the company designs its technology and manufactures films at an approximately 25,000-square-foot facility in Valley View. And it makes its optics products in Macedonia, which got up and running about six months ago. The company is hosting an official grand opening there July 21.
Essentially, nanotechnology allows Peak Nano to do sophisticated engineering inside thin films or small lenses. On the optics side, that gives the company far more control over how the light traveling through a lens behaves, compared with traditional lenses.
On a typical lens, there are two surfaces. The light enters the lens, bends, travels in a straight line, and then bends again as it leaves, with its trajectory based on the refractive index of that lens. But Peak Nano's lenses can contain up to 1.2 million nanolayers, with each layer specifically selected for its refractive index. That lets the company carefully tailor the focus and resolution, the transparency, the weight and more.
That applies to other potential applications, too. The company's strength is both in the nanotechnology and the polymers it uses, said Wendy Hoenig, chief marketing and sales officer. The polymers in its films are specifically chosen for their properties in areas like strength or temperature. That means the products they're making can be made lighter or smaller than comparable ones. Hus noted that nanolayered films could be used to control the charge in a capacitor for an electric vehicle, spreading it out among the layers.
And the approach changes how recycled materials can be used. Recycled layers can be tucked in between virgin materials, retaining the properties of the new material, Hoenig said. Typically, products that contain a mix of recycled goods lose properties as those materials are blended together. This is a more intentional approach.
"That is a big strategic advantage for us," Hoenig said.
The films produced in Valley View are used to make Peak Nano's optics products. Hoenig said the company also plans to make the films available to customers in a variety of industries, whether that's through direct sales or licensing agreements. Peak Nano still is working out those business models. On the optics side, Hus said Peak Nano designs the entire system and integrates its lens into the product.
The Macedonia facility, a former steel warehouse, offered the physical stability needed for making the optics products, Hus said. It's about 40,000 square feet, including about 8,000 square feet of office space. It also boasts a 10,000-square-foot ISO 7 clean room where the films are processed, layered and inspected. The typical roll of optical film is about 500 feet, and the refractive index is tested every 2 and half feet, Hus said.
There are 18 robots in the clean room, 12 of which are responsible for production. Hus said they can make up to 250,000 lenses a year. The robots cut and stack the films in the clean room in Macedonia, and the lenses are compression molded and otherwise finished in Valley View.
Welsh said Peak Nano has invested about $40 million in the two Ohio locations. And he expects that investment to continue to grow.