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"It wasn't planned."
In 2005, Jacqueline Siy-Ronquillo began researching quantum dots manmade semiconductor nanocrystals that emit light for her doctorate in chemistry at the University of Utah.
"We were trying to understand the stability of quantum dots and their behavior when subjected to different environments," Siy-Ronquillo said as she stood near a bank of test tubes in a small lab in the Henry Eyring Building on the U. campus. By 2008, the nature of Siy-Ronquillo's work had changed, thanks to a "chance discovery."
"They were studying something very basic," said her husband, Nikko Ronquillo, "and she stumbled upon a process to make quantum dots in better fashion than anybody else can."
Ronquillo, 28, is pursuing his Ph.D. and medical degree at the U. He and his wife, 33, are from the Phillipines but met here through mutual friends and married in 2009.
The couple recently launched a company called Navillum Nanotechnologies LLC (Navillum signifies "new light"). The U.'s Technology Commercialization Office has already filed for U.S. and international patents for Ronquillo's invention.
Quantum dots, discovered in the 1980s, emit light in colors that correspond to their size. The small dots are blue; as they get larger they run the spectrum to red. Once formed however, they do not change size or color.
While only two to 10 nanometers in size, quantum dots dramatically increase solar panel efficiency and also decrease the amount of energy used for cellphone and TV displays. In addition, they hold promise in geothermal work, fiber optics and biomedical imaging.
However, only a handful of companies currently produce the dots, all using a high-heat process 200 to 300 degrees Celsius that is costly and difficult to control in terms of dot size. At best, it can only produce small quantities. A gram of the nanocrystals costs between $2,500 to $10,000.
For Siy-Ronquillo, science turned serendipitous when she found she could produce the dots with temperatures as low as 50 degrees Celsius and thus control their size and color.
"With our method, we can make it in a cheaper, more efficient manner on a big scale," Siy-Ronquillo said. "So that's our strength.
We can now hopefully meet the market demand and have this be used in actual products."
Siy-Ronquillo worked under the direction of U. chemistry professor Michael Bartl, who was named one of Popular Science's "brilliant 10" in 2010.
"A lot of discoveries are not planned. But you see the phenomenon occurring and Jacqueline didn't brush it away," Bartl said. "Her big achievement was to take a closer look."
From lab to market • In April, three University of Utah MBA students took first place in the regional Cleantech New Venture Challenge held at the University of Colorado in Boulder for the business plan they developed for Navillum.
That regional recognition rewarded Navillum with a $100,000 check and the chance to compete for the top national award at the June 12-13 National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition in Washington D.C. Navillum goes up against five other regional winners who represent some of the most prestigious research universities in the U.S. Through noon MDT on June 13, people can view the six projects online and vote for their favorite. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the regional and national contests support innovation that advances affordable and efficient clean energy.
Students Ameya Chaudhari, Chris Lewis and Ryan Tucker, part of the U.'s Pierre and Claudette Lassonde New Venture Development Center
, spent the past year researching and writing Navillum's business plan.
"I've had very little experience with quantum dots," Lewis said. "But because this is a year-long program, we were able to dive into the technology, understand it and determine its applications for the market."
Navillum's low-temperature process puts the start-up on the leading edge of a potentially large and lucrative industry.
"With some additional time and research, we can scale up the process," Lewis said, "make quantum dots efficiently, develop relationships with manufacturers and start selling them."
In application, quantum dots hold dual promise for saving energy on electronic devices with back-lit screens and also boosting energy production in solar panels from 15 percent efficiency to at least 35 percent.
"Every year we get 200 new inventions out of the University research labs and about half are patented," said Troy D'Ambrosio , an entrepreneur who became director of the Lassonde Center in 2001.
From that pool of projects, the center selects 10 per year, D'Ambrosio said, based on which will yield the highest educational value for their MBA students.
With quantum dots, "we have a technology but not a product yet," D'Ambrosio said, adding that the Navillum business plan focuses on scaling up the lab process to commercial manufacturing levels.
"We've got enough money now to do the first step," D'Ambrosio said. Along with the $100,000 DOE prize, Navillum also received $155,000 in grants from the U., Utah's Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) and the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR).
So far, the Lassonde Center has launched 34 startups, including a genetic diagnostic company named Lineagen, and Wasatch Microfluidics, which specializes in biomolecular interaction analysis.
Much of the challenge with technology startups lies in connecting the dots between science and business, said Thad Kelling, public relations specialist for the U.'s Technology Venture Development. But Navillum already has deep financial support.
"It's certainly a record," Kelling said of the $255,000 the company has already acquired. "I don't know of another Lassonde team getting that much money."Navillum's husband and wife team are eager to take the next step.
Siy-Ronquillo said they
are now focused on the business side, which involves getting investors onboard.
"Right now we are doing [the manufacturing] in a lab," Siy-Ronquillo said. "Obviously we can't do that if we want to supply the world."
The national Clean Energy competition
When • June 12-13
Where • Washington D.C.
Who • Six teams vie for the top honor: Mesdi Systems, University of Central Florida; Navillum Nanotechnologies, University of Utah; NuMat Technologies, Northwestern University; Radiator Labs, Columbia University; SolidEnergy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stanford Nitrogen Group, Stanford University.
Source • U.S. Department of Energy