Inside Nanotechnology BIG Idea Breakfast with Vijaya Vasista of Nanosphere

September 2002 Nanotech

Nanotechnology has buzz in today’s business community, but will it be the next big thing? From science fiction and popular science periodicals, people are fascinated with the concept of nanotechnology, but is there a business in this field? More specifically, how is nanotechnology being commercialized? Vijaya Vasista, the Chief Operating Officer of Nanosphere shared her insights into the industry evolution of nanotechnology and how Nanosphere is driving this growth at the BIG Idea Breakfast on Tuesday Morning, August 27th.

According to Ms. Vasista, nanotechnology is at the development stage that computer science was at forty years ago. The commercialization of nanotechnology is a slow evolution of a basic science that will penetrate many fields. It may not produce the next dot com, but it also will not produce the next vapor-ware bubble. Nanotechnology is real. The foundation for nanotechnology has been laid over the past twenty years. As nanotechnology is commercialized, the changes that it will bring to business will be deep and long lasting.

Ms. Vasista expects the commercialization of nanotechnology to evolve in three phases. In the first phase, tools companies that enable people to see and manipulate nanoparticles will be commercialized. In the second phase, nanotechnology will be deployed to solve problems in the life sciences. In the third phase, nanotechnology will penetrate other fields such as materials sciences and electronics.

Given these routes to commercialize nanotechnology, Nanosphere is concentrating on the life sciences. Founded in Chicago by two professors from Northwestern, Nanosphere is currently concentrating on bringing to market a new DNA diagnostic process that could cut costs, time, effort, and required skill-level from the process of determining DNA sequences within a subject.

DNA diagnostics are a large industry. In Vitro Diagnostics alone is a $20 billion dollar industry. Other industries include research at $18 B, biological defense at $9 B, food, water and animal diagnostics at $2 B, and forensic DNA diagnostics at $1 B. Originally, DNA diagnostics were conducted using radioactive particles. Because of the need to avoid radioactivity, the process switched to using photofluors. Unfortunately, methods using photofluors suffer from lower sensitivity and specificity than those using radioactive atoms. To solve the shortcomings of photofluors and serve the large DNA diagnostics industry, Nanosphere is introducing gold nanoparticles in the process.

At the nanoscale, gold behaves very differently than it does at the macroscale. For starters, gold is red when reduced to nanospheres rather than the usual yellow color of jewelry. Making red gold particles isn’t new. Hundreds of years ago, the makers of stain glass windows were using nanospheres of gold in making sharp red colored glass, yet they didn’t know of nanotechnology. Importantly, until recently we have not been able to see and control the nanoparticles at the level required for creating an industry.

At a scientific level, Nanosphere’s DNA diagnostic process uses the binding property between gold nanospheres and oligonucleotides. (Oligonucleotides are short bits of single strands of DNA). As you recall from high school biology, single strands of oligonucleotides will combine in a very specific manner to form the double helix DNA. This property of oligonucleotides allows for an unknown strand of oligonucleotides to be compared with a known strand of oligonucleotides. When the unknown and the known strands of oligonucleotides are both attached to gold nanospheres, the mixture of the two will turn from red to blue in a very low-concentration solution as the two strands combine and form an aggregate. This is the foundation of the diagnostics. Matched pairs will combine to form an aggregate that is blue in a solution. Unmatched pairs won’t combine and the solution will stay red.

To add specificity to the diagnostics, Nanosphere is using a property of the denaturization process of DNA. As DNA is heated, it will become denaturized and loose its shape. Slightly mismatched pairs of oligonucleotides will denaturize at a lower temperature than perfectly matched pairs of oligonucleotides. Moreover, using nanospheres of gold makes the denaturization temperature very sharp and well defined. This produces high specificity.

In regards to sensitivity, Ms. Vasista shared with us that they have been able to introduce a factor of four increase in sensitivity into the process of determining DNA sequences. Importantly, she added that this can reduce the need for companies to purchase a highly specialized $60,000 machine and enable them to buy a $40 machine at Radio Shack to perform some of their measurements.

Given such clear business opportunity and well developed science, Nanosphere expects to commercialize their medical applications in the next three to four years. To complete the market and technology development process, Nanosphere is currently seeking capitalization. To date, Ms. Vasista reported that the greatest interest hasn’t been from the VC community but from corporations such as Takeda, a Japanese firm building out their offices in the northwest Chicago suburbs.

With firms like Nanosphere and business leaders like Ms. Vasista, Chicago is poised to be the leader in nanotechnology as global capital is invested.

Also Appearing in

Midnight Missive Newsletter, Big Frontier, Aug. 29, 2002

About the author

Tim J. Smith, PhD is the Managing Principal of Wiglaf Pricing, and an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University of Marketing and Economics. His most recent book is Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures.

More by Tim J. Smith, PhD