April 3, 2000 – Psssst! Coatings!
Find a new way to apply thin films, and a crowd of chemical companiesand chipmakers will beat a path to your door. Andrew Hunt did just that and turned a borrowed $15,000 into more than half of a fast-growing company, Microcoating Technologies, that could be worth $200 million.
Films make the industrial world go around. There are films of chemicalsor metal alloys inside soup cans, on solar panels, in semiconductorchips, on jet engine blades, around tool bits.
There are many ways to apply coatings. Hunt has made breakthroughs in amethod for applying complex coatings called chemical vapor deposition(CVD). That means floating a cloud of reactive gas over the substrate(the object being coated) in such a way that just the right amount offilm coating is left on it. This usually takes place in a vacuum chamberand at very high temperatures.
Hunt’s invention, called combustion CVD, does without the vacuum and thehigh temperature. He combines the chemicals he wants deposited with asolvent (just what solvent is a trade secret) and sprays the mix througha patented nozzle. He ignites the spray. The hyperactive particles thatresult find their way to the surface of the object to be coated.
Hunt’s process was the first to allow high-quality superconducting alloymaterial to be applied to lengthy wire in commercial batches.Previously, the alloy could be applied only in a vacuum–that meant youcouldn’t get a piece of superconductor-coated wire any longer than yourvacuum chamber. Even small vacuum chambers are expensive.
Hunt, 39, got his start while studying for his Ph.D. in materialsscience at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His adviser was worriedabout experiments using flammable solvents and banned them from schoolgrounds. So Hunt moved the work to his yard. The experiments worked, andhe soon applied for a patent.
In 1994, a month after he got his doctorate, Hunt launched MicrocoatingTechnologies in Atlanta, Georgia, with money borrowed on his creditcards. He kept the business going that first year with military grants:The U.S. government was looking for a way to put electromagneticmaterial on memory devices inside Star Wars weaponry.
Hunt and his former roommate, Jeffrey C. Moore, found a way to keeptheir experiments going. Just as small biotech companies stay alive bydoing contract work for big drug companies, Microcoating gets money frompotential customers who want coating processes developed. Microcoatingwould receive money from, for example, a computer company to find a wayto get barium strontium titanate onto semiconductor chips. The clientwould retain the rights to the process for memory chips. Hunt’s firmwants to keep the rights for other chip applications.
Such as? Hunt hopes that a big market will open up in cell phones. Thatsame barium compound has some nifty electrical properties that mayenable designers to pack transistors in tighter without overheating a chip.
Rohm & Haas, the chemical firm, has Microcoating working on a process tocreate thin-film resistors so that they can be embedded within a circuitboard rather than soldered on top. That would make the board smaller andfaster. International Paper is asking Hunt to put a polymer coating onfood packaging.
Microcoating’s creative licensing deals, although they have brought inonly a few million dollars annually, meant that the firm did not have toturn to venture capitalists until six months ago, when it sold a 4%stake to Noro-Moseley, a firm in Atlanta, for $4 million. Hunt stillowns more than half the company; the other 110 employees, includingMoore, own the remainder. Hunt needs another round of venture capitalfinancing soon. If he can start getting revenues from products, not justcontract research and licensing deals, he will be able to take this firmpublic at a rich price.
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