Breakout Labs Welcomes Startups in Food, Health, Metals, Adhesives

Car parts that don’t get wet or rust, a nano-glue that won’t damage walls, sensors that detect food freshness, and people who stay healthy as they age. These are the goals of four new startup companies just chosen to receive funding and other support from Breakout Labs, a seed-stage revolving fund operated by the Thiel Foundation, founded by Peter Thiel.

Breakout Labs invests as much as $350,000 in its portfolio companies—the amount each of the four new startups will receive.

The technology fields vary greatly among the latest companies joining San Francisco-based Breakout Labs’ support network, but they do share some common aspirations—avoiding waste and deterioration with affordable science-based fixes.

Richmond, CA-based Maxterial started out as a graduate school project for its co-founders, CEO Mehdi Kargar and CTO Atieh Haghdoost (pictured above with Kargar on right.) Their challenge was to confer new properties on metals by changing their texture, rather than by altering their chemical composition. Haghdoost showed Kargar some interesting microstructures she’d produced on metal surfaces, and Kargar guessed that they might be “superhydrophobic,” which means very water-repellent. Lab tests showed he had guessed right, he says.

Manufacturers could water-proof large metal objects affordably with the process Maxterial has developed to make a smooth surface more textured, Kargar says. The method can be carried out in existing plants without costly building modifications, he says. A solution of ions is applied to the metal product, and the deposited ions turn into solids distributed unevenly across the surface. The resulting texture resembles minuscule “valleys and mountains,” so a water droplet encounters much less solid surface area to stick to, Kargar says. Instead, the droplets sit on the air pockets trapped between the microstructures on the surface, so they roll right off.

Maxterial is still in the research stage, but Kargar says the startup has already produced stainless steel that doesn’t get wet. The company’s proprietary process will probably be used first to create more durable faucets and other bathroom fixtures, he says. But the method can be used to make other metals water-repellent. The potential products may include corrosion-resistant auto parts and electronic devices that still work after a soaking. Kargar and Haghdoost are looking to form partnerships with manufacturers and hear their ideas about real-world products that could be improved with Maxterial’s technology.

Another new Breakout Labs portfolio company, Pittsburgh, PA-based NanoGriptech, is also experimenting with novel materials. It’s developing micro-fiber adhesives inspired by the tiny, sticky foot hairs of the lizard-like gecko, which can literally walk on walls.

The company is a spinout formed in 2009 by Metin Sitti, a mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. NanoGriptech proposes a wide range of potential products that could be improved by the gripping power of its adhesives—leg braces and face masks for medical use, gloves for golfers and soccer goalies, removable car seats, and baby bowls that stay put.

In the world envisioned by Cambridge, MA-based C2Sense, we’ll not only have smart refrigerators—we’ll have smart food packages that prompt us to cook up the steaks inside them before the meat goes bad. The company is developing sensors with carbon nanotubes that can gauge the freshness of fruits, vegetables, and meats by taking a whiff of them.

The payoff is not only to save money for consumers, but also to cut down on the tons of global food waste dumped in landfills, where it exudes methane gas. The small C2Sense sensors could not only be incorporated into grocery packaging, but could also be deployed throughout the food production supply chain from harvest to shipping and storage, the company says.

Lastly, Shorewood, WI-based CyteGen is drawing on the expertise of scientists from eight universities to find ways to lower the toll of illnesses associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The idea is to not only to help people live longer, but also to extend the number of years they live as healthy adults.

The CyteGen approach may sound familiar to many residents of the Bay Area, where the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, CA, has been working along similar lines to discover the common factors behind various diseases that are more common in older people.

Breakout Labs fosters the growth of companies that are still in the R&D stage, and often backs startups that combine biotechnology and technology elements. It has invested in more than two dozen companies since 2011.

Maxterial’s Kargar says the chance to consult with the organization’s mentors is as important as the seed funding. His startup has already gained valuable assistance on its business strategy by working with Breakout Labs experts for the past few weeks, he says. The mentors also understand something that’s key to the process of science.

“You can fail many times before you get it right,” Kargar says.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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