NBD Nano Aims its Bug-Inspired Tech at Big Industrial Markets

8/13/14Follow @curtwoodward

Technology inspired by the exoskeleton of a hardy desert bug is being aimed at big industrial problems, and investors are betting several million dollars that it could make a difference.

NBD Nanotechnologies, a Boston-based advanced materials startup, has landed a $5.2 million investment led by Phoenix Venture Partners. Supply Chain Ventures and existing angel investors also contributed to the startup’s Series A investment round.

Boston-based NBD was part of the Techstars accelerator program in 2012, and stood out for being one of the more ambitious ideas that played with natural forces. At first, the company experimented with making devices that could collect water from humidity in the air—an idea often described as a kind of “self-filling water bottle.”

That’s where the insect inspiration comes into play: the company’s technology is inspired by the body of the Namib Desert beetle, which hydrates itself by using a patchwork of water-attracting and water-repelling regions on its shell to capture and drink water droplets from the air. (The acronym in the company’s name stands for “Namib Beetle Design.”)

But soon enough, NBD realized there was a much more promising market in the industrial sector. So water bottles were out, and the startup set its sights on working with big companies that might want to use its technology to improve their products—anticorrosive paints, waterproofed electronics, and machines that handle a lot of water.

One example: NBD has a federal grant to explore whether its specialized coatings can improve the performance of steam condensers, which are used by electric power plants and desalinization facilities to convert steam into liquid water.

The technology also could be useful in large-scale water harvesting, Co-founder and CEO Miguel Galvez says. NBD has a second federal grant to determine whether it can improve the performance of “fog nets,” a water-collecting wire mesh that pulls condensation from the air and collects it as liquid water. Galvez calls that idea “a direct biomimicry play from the beetle.”

There are competitors in these highly specialized worlds. NBD is betting it can stand out with a new kind of nanotechnology polymer, which can be manipulated to make it either hydrophobic or hydrophilic depending on the needs of a potential customer.

It’s a far cry from the worlds of software or medicine that attract a large share of entrepreneurs and investors today. Galvez notes that in software, the risk is mostly on finding a market for a given technology. In medicine, it’s often about getting the right technology to fit a defined market.

“Materials play in this very awkward middle place where there’s both technical risk, and there’s market risk—it’s very challenging to build a product, and we don’t know if people are going to buy it,” he says. NBD’s solution? “We cast a broad net for application areas, and we find the partners that are going work with us to commercialize them.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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