How a Nanotech Startup Could Change Your Life: The Modumetal Story
“What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?”
“No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
It’s one of the many memorable exchanges from “The Matrix.” But next time, Keanu Reeves should just talk to Christina Lomasney about getting some Modumetal armor—so he truly won’t have to worry about dodging anything.
Lomasney is the co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based nanotech startup Modumetal, which has grand plans to reinvent the metals industry, not just body armor. Three months ago, Modumetal announced it had raised more than $1.5 million from the Alliance of Angels, Second Avenue Partners, and WRF Capital, to advance its development of nanolaminated structures—fundamentally new kinds of metals that are stronger and lighter than steel and can be used to make better armor, structural components, and corrosion- and heat-resistant coatings. The 17-person company has also raised just under $1 million in government contracts and grants.
But first, let’s flash back to 2007. In a formative meeting, Lomasney and her fellow co-founder (and former University of Washington physics labmate) John Whitaker were talking with Dan Rosen, chair of the Alliance of Angels, about the idea behind their company. “They looked like the cat that ate the canary,” Rosen recalls. “My comment was, ‘Do you guys really understand what you have there?'”
In what can be a telling exercise for any entrepreneur, Rosen asked them to write the Wall Street Journal article that would appear the day Modumetal was successful. They wrote two. The first said that all U.S. auto manufacturers had adopted Modumetal to make their cars, increasing their fuel efficiency by 50 percent. The second said the military had announced that new vehicles using Modumetal technology have saved 10,000 lives. “Both were very interesting glimpses of the future,” Rosen notes.
Fast forward to last week when I sat down with Lomasney (see photo, left), a Boeing alum, to discuss where things are going with Modumetal, hear more about its strategy, and get a tour of the facilities. Those ambitious Wall Street Journal milestones haven’t been met yet, but if anything, the vision for the company has grown.
Lomasney is not one to make speculative or unfounded claims. Her one-word summary of Modumetal’s culture is “competent.” Last summer, she said the company was transitioning from military to transportation applications. So when she now says, “We’re the next ArcelorMittal”—the world’s largest steel maker—you sit up and take notice. As she explains, the metals industry has not changed that much in many centuries. People have altered the chemistry of metals by adding ingredients, to produce things like stainless steel or titanium. People have changed the microstructure of metals by heating or cooling the materials just so.
What Modumetal is trying to do instead is exploit the properties of interfaces—nano-scale interactions between different layers of metal folded over and over. It’s somewhat analogous to the way ancient samurai swords were crafted in layers, Lomasney says.
“We can create phenomena that we didn’t know were possible,” she says. “We’ve given the industry a new dial. Now you can create a step change in performance. Fundamentally controlling what happens at the interfaces is what’s going to change the game.”
The key is that this process is hands-off and automated, once Modumetal gets started with a vat of metals dissolved in an acid solution (see photo, below). By controlling the temperature of the bath and the timing of electric current through a conducting rod, Modumetal’s engineers “grow” layers of novel metal alloys, which can be used to make everything from lighter, heat-resistant wind turbine blades and corrosion-resistant coatings, to metallic woven graphite for vehicle armor (see photo, further below) and specialized foam materials for automotive suspension systems. Vats of metal solutions churn away in the basement of the Modumetal lab, along with testing equipment like a Charpy impact tester, which measures the toughness of a material in response to a bullet slamming into it, say.
Lomasney draws a parallel to the days of Henry Bessemer, an English engineer in the 1800s who reinvented the process of steel production, making it widely accessible for making railroad ties, skyscrapers, and so forth. “We’re doing the same thing for nanotech,” she says. “It hasn’t really changed your life or mine yet. It’s not a commodity you can go out and buy. We’re going to make it possible.” One example would be if people could someday order corrosion-resistant “modumetal” to be used in everything from their cars to bridges to buildings—a multibillion-dollar market.
I pressed Lomasney on how a little company like Modumetal could pull this off. “We have great aspirations of growing the company. It’ll be through sales,” she says—not through venture funding. “It’s a completely different market dynamic than you would see with software. It’s not sale-by-sale. We’re not trying to conquer one customer at a time.” If you look at the requirements for bridge coatings, for example, they’ve been approved by government agencies to meet certain specifications, she explains. If Modumetal can meet those tough specifications, the company will be in great shape. “We’re not trying to sell the material one application at a time. That does lead to very rapid growth rates,” she says.
Modumetal competes with other nanomaterials firms like Xtalic, Integran Technologies, and The NanoSteel Company. So success certainly won’t come easy, Lomasney admits. “We have work to do. We’re at a transition point for the company.” The biggest challenge now? “Too many opportunities,” she says. “We get calls from potential customers all the time. The hardest part is saying no.”