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Innovation Economy

While world-changing technology may take time to develop, patience can pay off for investors

Model of a nanotube, which is 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair. One company is developing a new kind of computer memory using the tubes. Model of a nanotube, which is 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair. One company is developing a new kind of computer memory using the tubes.
By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / February 14, 2010

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Ray Stata is not a proponent of the splashy, overnight success. Over almost 45 years, he has helped build Norwood-based Analog Devices Inc. into an 8,500-person company with an $8 billion market cap, supplying essential signal-processing chips that power LCD televisions, digital cameras, and mobile phones. And as an investor with Stata Venture Partners of Needham Heights, he has been making investments in start-ups that he believes could become equally big.

“The sweet spot for me is to identify emerging technologies that could change the world and build a sustainable advantage,’’ says Stata, who spends about one-third of his time as Analog’s chairman and two-thirds on investing activities. “Not everyone is comfortable with the risks associated with that.’’

In a quiet way, Stata has been serving as the godfather to a group of start-ups with lofty ambitions, whether they are enabling electricity to be broadcast like Wi-Fi signals (Watertown-based WiTricity Corp.) or perfecting laser scalpels that reach far into the body without damaging healthy tissue (OmniGuide Inc. in Cambridge).

Stata Venture Partners doesn’t have a website, and two of its most promising investments maintain a similarly low profile. There is, I’m told, no phone system at Woburn-based Nantero Inc. (employees use their personal cellphones), and Lilliputian Systems Inc. of Wilmington has described itself as a stealth company, refusing to disclose any plans for an eventual product launch, ever since I first met its cofounder in 2001.

Lilliputian is developing what it calls a “silicon power cell’’ - essentially a miniature fuel cell on a chip, powered by butane. The fuel cell converts the butane (also known as lighter fuel) into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which are exposed to a special electrolyte, along with air, to produce electricity. The process keeps a battery perpetually charged, and also emits small amounts of water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Lilliputian chief executive Ken Lazarus says that replacing a lithium-ion battery with one of his company’s fuel cells could extend a cellphone’s operating time at least five- to ten-fold, while weighing just half as much. “The sweet spot for our technology is 2 to 20 watts of power, which covers things like cellphones and laptops, and anything in between,’’ Lazarus says.

Lazarus says that the company could first bring to market a device that plugs into various portable electronics devices, similar to battery-boosting devices sold today. But eventually he’d like consumer electronics companies to include a built-in dock for a Lilliputian fuel cell.

A major engineering challenge has been finding a way to contain the heat produced by the chemical reaction that takes place, which can reach 1,500 degrees. A lobbying challenge has been to convince agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration that fuel cells will be safe to take onto airplanes. Lazarus says the company has succeeded at both. The company, with 40 employees, has raised $90 million in funding, some of which has gone toward setting up a small production facility in Wilmington.

When I met Lilliputian cofounder Sam Schaevitz in mid-2001, he was just shepherding the company out of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Lab, and he expected to have a working prototype within 18 months. Stata says that when he invested in the company last year, it had “something that works, but there are still questions about the power it can output and the lifetime of the device - those characteristics need to be improved and refined.’’

Last fall, Toshiba Corp. began selling a fuel cell-powered charger called the Dynario in Japan for just over $300. Lazarus says that Lilliputian is “not talking about a time frame’’ for its first product to hit the market.

Nantero is a slightly larger company than Lilliputian, with 50 employees, though it has raised only a third of the capital. Like Lilliputian, it is tackling a key limitation of our technological age: the amount of data that can be stored on flash memory cards (often used in digital cameras) and embedded flash drives (built into some newer laptops).

Memory chips are expected to constantly expand their capacity while also getting cheaper. Greg Schmergel, Nantero’s chief executive, says that their current design is “hitting the end of its scaling road map.’’

Nantero has amassed 95 patents around a new design for memory chips that uses carbon nanotubes that are just 1 nanometer in diameter to construct switches that can turn on and off to represent the ones and zeroes that represent digital information. You can fit a lot of nanotubes in 1 inch of space, and Schmergel says what’s unique about using nanotubes is that reading and writing information is fast and “they’re nonvolatile, so if you turn the power off, everything stays in the same state.’’

Schmergel talks about Nantero-based memory chips running inside laptops that would help avert some of the frustrating blackouts that occur with today’s hard drives, and deliver longer battery life (there’s no spinning disk inside) at lighter weights.

The company has developed an approach to using nanotubes in existing semiconductor factories, and Schmergel says Nantero has already licensed its manufacturing approach to several semiconductor companies, most of which he cannot name: “The further along we get, the more competitively sensitive it is.’’ Nantero’s website lists Hewlett-Packard and LSI Logic Corp., and ON Semiconductor among its partners, but Schmergel says there are others. Nantero doesn’t plan to do its own manufacturing.

Asked when a memory chip using Nantero’s technology will be available, Schmergel says, “it won’t be this year, but it also won’t be five years off.’’ Thanks to licensing revenues already coming in, Schmergel says the company doesn’t expect to need to raise more venture capital.

Both Nantero and Lilliputian say that their ambition is to remain independent, and eventually sell stock to the public; Lilliputian’s job listings describe it, optimistically, as a “pre-IPO company.’’

“All of these companies that are working on something that is potentially very big always take more patience than you’d like, and there are a lot of twists and turns along the way,’’ says Jeff Andrews, who, as an investor at Waltham’s Atlas Venture, was among the first to put money into Lilliputian. “Ray [Stata] is someone who has the patience and the experience to not get panicky when things don’t happen per the plan.’’

When I asked Stata to compare Analog’s development as a company to that of Nantero and Lilliputian, he said that the company he founded had to find its feet much more quickly. “At Analog, you had to kill to eat. We were profitable in the first year,’’ he said, adding that Analog’s first few products were more mundane than world changing.

But he says his investment strategy at Stata Venture Partners has been to find “breakthrough opportunities’’ that are “high-risk, but potentially high return.’’ He tends to work with other patient backers, such as Charles River Ventures of Waltham (Nantero) and Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, based in Silicon Valley (Lilliputian). If his portfolio companies require eight or 10 years to perfect their product, he says that can work out just fine: creating a substantial new technology often means “you’re well-positioned, without anyone else coming up your exhaust pipe.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.