WisBusiness: Local entrepreneur’s business seeks to change the nanotech industry — in a big way

By Chelsea Brander

For WisBusiness.com

NCD Technologies, launched in Madison by a UW-Madison doctoral graduate to solve problems at the molecular and even atomic levels of nanotechnology, is thinking big about its future.

Founded by Patrick Heaney, NCD Technologies specializes in applying nanocrystalline diamond coatings to micro-tools that are used in the creation of miniature parts for modern devices such as the iPhone and other small electronic units.

As modern media devices are becoming smaller and smaller, so are the tools necessary for building them. This is posing a problem for the nanotechnology industry because the current process for making these tools causes them to warp, weaken and break prematurely when produced at increasingly smaller sizes.

Heaney believes he discovered a secret to making stronger, smaller tools during his PhD research at UW-Madison and has since turned his findings into a fledgling company that is on its way to changing the industry.

After completing the groundwork for the company, Heaney sought advice from MERLIN Mentors to help take NCD Technologies to the next level. The Madison Entrepreneur Resource, Learning and Innovation Network, or MERLIN, is a group of local business experts who volunteer their time to share advice, experience and knowledge with entrepreneurs in southwest Wisconsin.

That’s how Heaney met Robert Shimmel, who was a mentor and now serves as NCD’s CEO and president.

While Heaney is the technology and manufacturing expert, Shimmel focuses more on the development of marketing, business, sales and finances. Shimmel has 20 years of experience in industrial business management and has been an executive of three other start-up companies that he helped grow into viable businesses.

“It’s fun! I always face a different challenge every day, but it’s fun!” Shimmel said of running a startup company.

NCD has positioned itself as a service company, meaning it performs nanocrystalization processes on tools owned by strategic partners, who in turn sell those finished tools to the market place. The company can apply a coating that is 10 to 100 times thinner than current technology.

“The essence of our business model is to give the industry today a better performing product while using our ability to help provide technology to drive the industry forward,” Shimmel said.

One of the challenges facing NCD Technologies is being able to take a laboratory process initiated at UW-Madison and turning it into a full-scale commercial process suitable for large volume manufacturing. Heaney has built commercial processing chambers to apply the coating in a way that is reproducible and produces consistently high performance results.

“Fundraising is becoming very important to NCD Technologies because the business is at the point where as company continues to grow, it is going to need additional equipment and other things to reduce its costs,” Shimmel said.

One potential source of fundraising may be NCD’s entry in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. NCD has advanced to the third round with about two-dozen of its original 248 competitors. The winners of the contest will be announced at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, June 5-6 in Milwaukee. Finalists will share in cash and in-kind prizes worth $200,000, and those same businesses will gain publicity that will interest angel or venture capitalists.

NCD Technologies has already benefited by taking part of the contest. The process has helped with organizing the overall business plan and allowed NCD to focus on their strategy and the value proposition that they bring to the market place. Shimmel said it has specifically helped in “developing how we present the company, which is critical now as we present to investors. We are able to use a lot of the same information.”

Another relationship that is helping move NCD Technologies forward is its tie to the UW-Madison. After receiving a two-year government grant, NCD began subcontracting with UW-Madison and currently tests a large amount of equipment in its facilities.

“I have been very, very impressed with the school, the equipment, the people. … It’s been incredible,” Shimmel said.

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