Going Nano in Edmond
Charles Seeney and his colleagues at Edmond’s NanoBioMagnetics, Inc., stand on the edge of the gap, separating the modern world from the future. It’s not a big gap. It’s about fifteen nanometers wide – about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. And despite its size, it’s not an easy gap to jump. Seeney, however, is confident they can make it to the other side and save countless lives in the process. Seeney and his company are nanotechnology experts and they’re poised to do some very big things on a very small scale.
“Nanotechnology,” says a grinning Seeney, “is not so much a technological revolution. It’s a technological tsunami.”
In the details, nanotechnology is not easily explained. The overarching concept, however, is pretty simple. Nanotechnology is the production and manipulation of very small tools – tools that function in unique and almost unimaginable ways. The tools are measured in nanometers – billionths of a meter – and on this tiny scale, the normal rules don’t apply. It’s as if, in this miniscule world, the laws of physics and chemistry get rewritten. But Seeney and his company aren’t complaining about the changed rules. They’re taking advantage of them.
“Nanotechnology is just a tool,” explains Seeney, “It’s a tool that will help other technologies do things more efficiently, more accurately, stronger, cheaper, and better. Nanotechnology itself is not a product. It’s a tool we can use to revolutionize every area of human endeavor.”
In the case of NanoBioMagnetics, new and better tools mean better chemotherapy. Everyone has probably heard the twisted joke about the oncologist who tells his colleague that the chemotherapy was successful but the patient died. Chemotherapy follows the “shotgun” model of treatment. The tumor being treated may be the size of a quarter and in a specific organ, but to reach and fight that tumor, doctors have to expose the patient’s entire body to damaging chemicals and radiation.
NanoBioMagnetics, in conjunction with Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, is trading in the "shotgun" for something more powerful and more accurate. Think of it as a squadron of microscopic F-18s. Using custom nanoparticles with particular magnetic properties, NanoBioMagnetics takes the fight against cancer directly to the tumor, leaving the rest of the patient’s body safely on the sidelines. Doctors, using a magnetic field, drive the particles into the tumor, where they precisely drop their chemotherapeutic payloads, sparing the rest of the patient’s body the traditional ravages of chemotherapy.
NanoBioMagnetics is what savvy investors call a "research and development company." NanoBioMagnetics doesn’t make products. It identifies promising applications for nanotechnology. Its scientists will then study, develop, and perfect that application until it can be commercialized. At that point, NanoBioMagnetics spins the application off into its own business, where the focus then becomes the product.
XetaComp, a wholly owned subsidiary, grew out of NanoBioMagnetics’ prior nanotechnology work with broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreens and sunblocks. Through the development, XetaComp, under its sunVextm label, offers sunscreen products that are more reliable and more effective than anything currently available. The company is currently evaluating sites for a manufacturing facility and plans to be in production by spring, 2007.
So far, NanoBioMagnetics’ R&D focus is cancer prevention and treatment. Between proofs of concept and clinical trials, widespread adoption of the company’s groundbreaking technique may be as far away as five years, but it’s already looking at new ventures and new directions. The walls of its humble but comfortable Edmond Headquarters are papered with journal articles and news stories that hint at possible opportunities spanning several industries and fields. It’s a testament to the incredible potential of nanotechnology, a chaotic road map for the future, and a constantly evolving, de facto wish list for Seeney and his ambitious company.
Seeney still describes four-year-old NanoBioMagnetics as a start-up company, despite the successes it has seen in nanomedicine. It’s a symptom of his realistic outlook and recognition of the struggles ahead. NanoBioMagnetics, like other young, high-tech start-ups, will have to fight to survive. Nanotechnology development, to say the least, is not cheap. It’s an expensive, time-intensive proposition, and one whose pay-off horizons are measured in years and decades, not months. For those reasons, venture capital is difficult to secure, especially from a shell-shocked investment community still reeling from the dotcom bust only a few years ago.
Seeney and his colleague, Dennis Donaldson, want to see more nanotech ventures, and investment dollars for those ventures, come to Oklahoma. When that happens, Oklahomans all around the state will reap the rewards. Nanotechnology jobs, even on the manufacturing side, are high paying, quality jobs. A single commercialized application of nanotechnology can create hundreds of jobs. And for a state like Oklahoma, which witnessed several plant and factory closings this year, that’s something worth looking into. At present there are four nanotechnology companies in Oklahoma. California alone has almost four hundred.
Not content with those figures, Seeney and Donaldson worked with state legislators such as Rep. Abe Deutschendorf (Lawton) and Sen. Gilmer Capps (Snyder) to develop the Oklahoma Nanotech Initiative (ONI), approved by Oklahoma’s legislature in 2002. ONI’s aims are many but two key goals are generating more investment in nanotechnology companies and getting the word out about the vast economic potential the industry holds for the state.
Long investment horizons for its applications make nanotechnology, despite its tremendous promise, unattractive to many private investors. Basic research and development support from the state offsets this disadvantage for smaller companies on the cutting edge. ONI is a good start, but to date Oklahoma has poured less than $3 million into the initiative – not even enough to build a single, dedicated nanotechnology lab. States like Texas, Virginia, and Alabama measure their commitment to nanotechnology in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The education component of ONI is equally critical.
Says Donaldson, “It used to be that you’d mention nanotechnology to people and they’d get these funny looks on their faces. For most people, what they knew of nanotechnology they got from Michael Crichton. That’s not the image we want out there.”
Education, he believes, is the first step toward growing a viable nanotechnology industry here in Oklahoma. Make people aware of the industry’s potential, then the funding, infrastructure, and other needed components will follow more easily.
Today NanoBioMagnetics is pouring its efforts into cancer treatment. Tomorrow it might be looking at better aircraft hulls. The day after that it might find itself exploring nanotechnology applications for agriculture. The scope of nanotechnology’s potential applications is enormous, but Seeney and his colleagues embrace it. They know that work on the cutting edge demands flexibility and a willingness to jump into new areas of expertise and make them their own.
Says Seeney, “Who would have thought, fifty years ago, that we could synthesize nanoparticles, which we do here regularly, [then] attach them to chemotherapeutic molecules and drive them right into a cancer cell? Back then, you would have been laughed at for thinking that was possible.”
Despite the uncertainties that small, cutting edge, start-up companies face, Seeney and his colleagues aren’t worried about what the future will bring for NanoBioMagnetics. They’re too busy thinking about what NanoBioMagnetics will bring to the future.