By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Jeff McCay, one of the founders of a company named Top Five, is no stranger to working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). One of the companies in the private equity firm’s portfolio – Composite Application Group – has worked for several years on carbon composite activities at the lab.
Yet, McCay was raving recently about the work of students from the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. The program is a joint initiative of ORNL and the University of Tennessee (UT) that attracts some of the brightest doctoral students in the country, including a subset interested in entrepreneurship.
“Their work greatly exceeded our expectations,” McCay said of the analysis the students completed for a nanofermentation technology that Top Five had licensed from ORNL. The agreement is actually a 15-month R&D license for a new Top Five subsidiary named Nano Elements Source, LLC, so time is critical.
Before the agreement expires, McCay and his partners – Dennis Roach and Jim Horton – have to determine if the ORNL technology will enable this new start-up to make a sub-element as precursor to an overall process producing a nanoparticle that is competitive with a current product but at a much lower cost.
The goal is an order of magnitude improvement, producing the nanoparticle that is being sold now for $10,000 a gram for about $10.
Fortunately, there was an intersection between a Bredesen Center class project and the analytic needs of Nano Elements Source.
“There were five potential markets that we thought made sense,” McCay explained, citing preliminary work done over the summer of 2013 by Weston Cronan, ironically Roach’s grandson. Armed with his analysis and those targets, the students were asked to further research those markets, identify the actual nanoparticle(s) in each market, and help build a business case for each of the five opportunities.
“It was not a scientific analysis, but a business assessment,” McCay said. “They were able to objectively look at those (opportunities) that had the best science, but not necessarily have the best business case.”
McCay got their reports in late 2014 and thinks he knows the best commercial path.
Now, Nano Elements Source is conducting its due diligence. The company has identified the best of the five markets and the appropriate element.
“We’re moving out of the R&D stage into validation,” McCay says. “We have to understand if there is a commercial value and advantage compared to the nanoelement it is competing with. Can the technology scale efficiently and economically?”
McCay is clearly very satisfied with the support he has received thus far.
“This was a great marriage and a great exercise,” he says. “This activity clearly boosted where we are.”