By John Pletz February 22, 2013
Skokie-based nanotech company NanoInk Inc. has shut down after its primary backer, Ann Lurie, pulled the plug after investing $150 million over the past decade.
The company, which employed 80 people at the Illinois Science and Technology Park, closed its doors last week. Mrs. Lurie, the widow of Sam Zell's business partner, Robert Lurie, is one of Chicago's few serious private investors in nanotechnology, a complex field that requires a lot of capital and time. Mrs. Lurie also is one of the region's most active philanthropists, with a particular interest in healthcare.
“I am in awe of the potential impact nanotechnology will have on the rapid and precise diagnosis of illness and its prospective expansion to areas of treatment not yet fully explored,” she said in a statement. “I anticipated commercialization of a substantive development from (NanoInk's) platform. However, as the financial return from our investments supports my personal philanthropy, we could no longer continue to be the sole funder of the company's technology at the level required to fully achieve its commercialization.”
NanoInk's “dip-pen” technology is used to develop hyperminiature products from pharmaceuticals to semiconductors, allowing researchers to manipulate materials on a molecular scale without needing expensive “clean rooms.” Its primary product, Nanoprofessor, is a laboratory system and curriculum aimed at schools and universities providing nanotech education. Equipment sold for about $250,000. Another product would allow pharmaceutical companies to encrypt pills or vials of medication to prevent counterfeiting.
It's unknown whether NanoInk's technology or products will be sold or licensed to others. The shutdown could leave customers scrambling. DesPlaines-based Oakton Community College just launched a nanotech course using Nanoink's equipment and curriculum.
“It was sad news,” says John Carlozi, a physics professor at Oakton. “We'll use the instruments they provided until we run out of supplies or it breaks down. This seemed to be a perfect tool to train people. We'll still be able to teach fundamentals of nanotech, we just won't be able to use that technology. There are other ways of producing things.”
NanoInk was founded on technology developed by Northwestern University researcher Chad Mirkin, though he had not been involved with the company for the past three years, since Mrs. Lurie invested $65 million . Ms. Lurie also backed Nanosphere Inc., a Northbrook-based maker of nanotech diagnostic equipment, which also was founded by Mr. Mirkin. Last week, Nanosphere, a public company, overhauled its management team and Ms. Lurie's top lieutenant stepped down as chairman.