Liquid molding startup Hummingbird Nano Inc. just moved into its new 10,000-square-foot facility in Nicholasville, just outside of Lexington, Ky., as it moves from startup to full-scale production.
The company is "trying to go across what they call the 'Valley of Death,' to net [research and development] and turn it into an actual business," Scott Stephens, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Kentucky and CEO of Hummingbird, told Plastics News in an interview.
Through federal and state grants, including from the Kentucky Cabinet of Economic Development, Hummingbird has received $2.3 million, and two rounds of pre-feed and seed funding totaling $2.7 million.
The startup, which specializes in configurable liquid molding, currently has eight regular employees and seven contractors, Stephens said. The contractors will likely be added as full-time employees in the near future, he said.
"We're always revising this plan, but we're looking at possibly doubling our workforce through 2022 into first quarter 2023," he said. "As we increase revenues, I would imagine we'll be able to triple the work force the year after that."
Hummingbird previously occupied about 1,200 square feet in "what used to be a house," Stephens said, so the team is "very excited" for the new location.
The investments and grants will also go toward infrastructure to convert its prototype manufacturing process into commercial machines that complete various stages of the liquid molding process, he said.
Hummingbird built out its new facility with a low-level, temperature-controlled clean room.
It's making mostly acrylic components with its "smart liquid that can respond to input signals to change its shape," Stephens said.
"We're molding a liquid against a liquid … to focus on creating really small channels," he said, for items like its first-released product, a "micro" mixing chip for "cellular-sized" liquids used in drug discovery, diagnostics, therapeutics and precision instrumentation. The product is distributed by Livermore, Calif.-based LabSmith Inc., Stephens added.
"A lot of what [Hummingbird's customers] deal with in biotech are liquids they want to mix and process," Stephens said. "Those liquids are very expensive. … One customer has proprietary liquids that cost $350,000 a liter."
While most fluid-mixing chips are two components glued together, with square or rectangular channels, Hummingbird's are one piece and feature circular channels for the liquids to run through, he said.
"The advantage of that is the … flow profiles for laminar flow through circular channels is a very smooth, parabolic profile that's very predictable so you can really engineer how the molecules and cells they're trying to work with can go through the channels," Stephens added.
"Typically when you mold against a surface, whatever the surface roughness is on the mold is what ends up on your part," he said. "[When] molding a liquid against another liquids … we're molding against something as smooth as a soap bubble."
Hummingbird recently worked on a prototype project with a "very large pharmaceutical company" for a module for one of the company's precision drug discovery instruments, Stephens said.
The company had tried to develop the instrument with 3D printing, precision pulling and plastic injection molding.
"You name it, they tried it," he said. Hummingbird was able to meet the product's need with its configurable liquid molding technology, he said.
Hummingbird hopes to expand into areas outside of life sciences and biotech in the future, Stephens added.