WisBusiness: Xolve helps develop nanotech applications for materials, energy

By Nicolas Calle

For WisBusiness.com

In 2004, a long-sought treasure was discovered. Its name is graphene, and could be the material that marks the dawn of the carbon age.

Isolated in a British lab by 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics winners Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, graphene is stronger than diamond, yet stretches like rubber. It is also thin, yet does not allow gases or liquids to pass through it. It is a better conductor of electricity than copper, and a better transistor than silicon. And yet, it is just one atom thick.

A Wisconsin-based company called Xolve is positioned to be a pioneer in graphene applications.

Formerly Graphene Solutions Inc., Xolve is an early stage company that specializes in production of nanomaterials, such as graphene, and nanotech equipment. The company develops equipment and procedures needed by other companies to take advantage of the emerging world of nanotech products and processes.

Xolve’s core team consists of two serial entrepreneurs with extensive experience in team-building and funding. They are John Biondi and James Hamilton, a professor at UW-Platteville. Helping them develop this technology is Philip Vidal Streich, a sophomore at Harvard University.

While people have heard about nanomaterials for a decade or more, there have been limited commercial uses — so far.

“We have slightly better tennis balls,” Biondi said, “and some cosmetics and some zinc oxide sunscreens that don’t turn your nose white on the beach, but nothing really life changing.”

The unique properties of nanoparticles come from each particle’s surface area and how it interacts with the environment around it. However, a fundamental problem with nanoparticles is that they are virtually insoluble. In other words, they clump together in a liquid medium, so their overall surface area is greatly diminished. This has plagued nanotechnology for years.

With Xolve’s technology, however, there may be a shift in price and performance of these materials.

“This instrument is a thousand times more sensitive than previous instruments at measuring the affinity between the nanoparticle and any solution that might dissolve it,” Biondi said “Jim and Philip’s discovery showed that we can dissolve these materials, by dissolving them in solutions that return their surface area, and along with that, their super properties.”

Their technology will have applications in markets involving surface coatings, composite materials and energy, all of which are poised for growth. The production of nanocomposites alone is currently a $590 million market.

Xolve’s business plans involve licensing and partnering with original equipment manufacturers to produce more products that can be available to a much wider market. Currently, the company is engaged in a $1.5 million convertible debt round being led by DSM, a large Dutch materials and OEM.

Xolve has many competitors in its major markets, but differentiates itself because its technology allows nanoparticles to achieve higher levels of performance, at less cost, both in manufacturing and in applications.

“All of these science fiction type applications that have been talked about for nanomaterials but not been achieved,” Biondi said, “but we really think we opened the door to achieve them. It is a fundamental change in the advanced materials world.”

Xolve is among 18 finalists in the national Cleantech Open, a contest whose mission is to foster the development of startups that deal with clean technologies. The company was also the winner of the 2008 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, and it will present to investors at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, running today and tomorrow in Madison.

— Calle is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.