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Intersecting Disciplines with Nanotechnology: A Conversation with Brent Segal

[LISA] Welcome to a special 15-year anniversary
episode of Stories from the NNI I’m Lisa Friedersdorf, Director of the National
Nanotechnology Coordination Office. Today it’s my pleasure to welcome Brent Segal.
Brett is a Technology Scout for Lockheed Martin and he engages closely with small
and medium-sized enterprises as well as venture capital firms in this role. Prior
to joining Lockheed Martin, Brent co-founded and served as the Chief
Operating Officer of Nantero, where they generated more than 200 patents and
applications. Brent, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us
today, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got involved
in nanotechnology? [BRENT] I was in graduate school working in inorganic chemistry and had made good friends with Charlie Lieber’s lab, who is really one of the
progenitors of the nanowire carbon nanotube industry you might say. And my
good friend Tom Lucas there had been telling me about this material, carbon
nanotubes, for some time. And he had decided he wanted to start a company to
actually commercialize something in carbon nanotubes. And so he called me and
said, Brent, you know, I want to start a company involving carbon nanotubes and I’d like you to help me. And it involves nanotechnology. I had no idea what was
going on in this field, but he explained it to me. He said he had worked on a
paper for Science. This is in 1999 and the main point of the paper was really
that he had taken a carbon nanotube and laid it out over another carbon nanotube
and applied a voltage. And the carbon nanotubes came together. And when they
did, current flowed, which he called an on, an on switch. And when he reversed the
polarity they popped back out of contact and it was an off. Now this he called a
memory switch and said it could be scaled up to make a very large memory. If
you put it in context, imagine if you took a pipe and you laid it across a canyon
and the pipe was, say 2 feet in diameter and 1 mile long. And you wanted to bend it
down and have it touch the bottom of the canyon. It would break very quickly. But carbon nanotubes do not break. And this was an
absolutely astounding discovery and I said, yes let’s do it. So we started a
company called Nantero to make non-volatile memory out of carbon
nanotubes and that’s how I got into the game. [LISA] You mentioned non-volatile.
Could you explain a little bit what you mean by that? [BRENT] Well this is actually the
key point is not only can you make these switches, which have, if you will, an on
and an off, which gets translated to a zero and a one. But even more important
is when you remove the power from these switches they stay exactly in the state
in which you found them. And that’s what we call non-volatile. Now this turns out
to be a form of memory which back in those days was not so widely used, but is
now used in everything. You think of flash drives, the small little thumb
drives that everybody carries around with them. That’s made out of the type of
non-volatile memory. And just about every hard drive has been replaced in most
modern laptops with a kind of flash memory, a non-volatile type of memory. So
to get into a non-volatile memory space was a really exciting thing. [LISA] So that was
your introduction into nanotechnology and really as an entrepreneur. What advice
do you have for students or others who are thinking about starting a tech
company? [BRENT] Well, let me tell you about what happened when we tried to commercialize
nanotubes and I think this will be the lesson that people will take away. So we
had a situation where Tom’s wonderful paper that he did at Harvard, I mean it
was fantastic. But when we tried to integrate
these carbon nanotubes and tried to lay them out in a chip scale or a wafer
scale, we immediately ran into some real realities about integration. And it
turned out that not all the nanotubes were the same length, it turned out that
they had contamination, and it turned out it was really hard to integrate. And
we could have just quit right then, right out of the gate, we could have been stuck. But what we really had to do was think in a different way. And so what we ended up
coming up with was we took the nanotubes in a completely random array, lay them
out on a surface, and then used a very common technique called photolithography
to etch out patterns in the carbon nanotubes and leave some parts covered
with a chemical species and some parts exposed. And in the parts that were
exposed, we found that plasma, oxygen plasma in
particular, could remove those carbon nanotubes. And then when we remove the
chemical, we now had beautiful, what we called traces, of carbon nanotubes at
almost any feature size with the length that we wanted and we let the carbon
nanotubes interact with each other in this mesh to really solve the problem.
And so as a entrepreneur you will be faced with these problems, you will
not know what to do, you will have difficulties and you have to come up
with new ways of doing it which leads us into patenting and we had a lot of
patents and one of the things that made us do a lot of patents was understanding
these problems that we had run into and there just was not a solution we looked
here we looked there we tried all kinds of different ideas, but when you had a
solution that was really new and would solve the problem we wrote a patent. And
that’s how you might notice we got quite a few patents. [LISA] That was work you
collaborated with BAE, is that correct? I remember seeing images that I used in
talks about that time frame. That’s right, we did work with BAE and that would
probably bring me to my second piece of advice for entrepreneurs,
which is partnership. So here we are a small company and we are trying to work
on these things and we realized very quickly we couldn’t do it all our own. We
did not have some of the big devices, we didn’t have the lithography equipment, we
didn’t have the ability to purify carbon nanotubes. And we ended up partnering
with BAE, who had a beautiful fab in Manassas, Virginia. We worked with them. We
partnered with ASML which is the largest lithography company in the world. And
they really helped us to perfect how can one fabricate these devices in a
CMOS fab and then we actually partnered with a company called Brewer Science in
Missouri who was very good at mixing different component species together in
a way that they could go into a fabrication facility and be very clean.
And they helped us to develop a CMOS grade carbon nanotube solution in those
days. We also worked with Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc, CNI, if you remember/
Rick Smalley’s company at Rice. They fabricated a lot of the carbon nanotubes
for us that were quite reproducible. And together we actually had a group that
could actually go to a CMOS fab like BAE and produce parts. It was fantastic. [LISA] Yeah. It was very exciting. I didn’t recall that you had worked with
Brewer at that time, so that’s a great story. Can you talk a little bit about
the exit? Because you’re now at Lockheed Martin, is that correct? [BRENT] That’s right. So what had happened was we had two divisions. And we had a division that was
focused entirely on commercial memory. And then we had a second division that
was working on things for the government. And these were very coincident, because
we really needed both things for both constituencies, if you will. But at some
point we quickly realized that the needs in the government division were
diverging and that they had very specific requirements that really didn’t
mesh with the commercial business. And at that time we decided this is a
good time to split the business and the commercial business went on on its
own, and the government business was sold to Lockheed and then I went with the
deal, if you will, to help integrate it. [LISA] And since you’ve been there you’ve taken
on a number of other responsibilities and definitely have a broader view of
the aerospace and defense industries. Can you share a little bit of information?
Other areas where you are seeing nanotechnology play a role? [BRENT] Yes I see it
really distributing itself in a lot of areas and I’m sure all of your
speakers that you have would agree and some of these things, but clearly some of
the areas that I really think are going to be valuable are batteries, especially
trying to improve the power density and the energy density of batteries. Of
course we have non-volatile memory and that will go to a lot of other types of
electronics and we can talk more about where that might go. Biosensors. I see a
lot of opportunity in biosensors with carbon nanotubes. They are a wonderful
matrix for attaching other kinds of molecules. And they’re really
starting to garner some interest in the sensor field. Solar cells, there are a
number of people are working on solar cells with carbon nanotubes. Coatings of
all sorts, and even something like paint. I’ve started to see some additives
really making their way towards the market. So I think there’s a lot of opportunities
there. It’s taken a lot longer than I think we all thought, but these things
are hard things. [LISA] Yes and as my colleague likes to say hard stuff takes time. We
are seeing mass market applications now after decades of research. I want to
switch gears a little bit. One of the things that you mentioned was
collaboration. I’d like you to comment on collaborations across disciplines and I
think that this is an area that at the onset of the NNI it was a novelty to
really work outside of your discipline and that’s one of the areas that people
focus on when they talk about how the ecosystem has changed. Can you
comment on interdisciplinarity and the impact its had on your work? [BRENT] Yes I can. I
think that nanotechnology itself, if there’s one thing that it did that is
absolutely unique it is to create this opportunity for intersection of
disciplines. And never before, I think, had we seen mathematics meet biology, and
biology meet physics, physics meeting surface science, and of course you know
being a chemist, I have to say everybody meeting the chemists. In fact when when I
was an undergraduate I tell you I was very interested in molecular biology and
I went to the head of the chemistry department I told them look I really
want to work on molecular biology. And he said, hey go ahead but I don’t know if
you’re gonna get a chemistry degree at this university, because I don’t know
that molecular biology really overlaps with chemistry that much. And now that’s
completely laughable. I mean that wouldn’t make any sense. But
nanotechnology has played a big role in moving us all together so that we’re all
scientists and engineers, we’re not just physicists or just biologists or just
mathematicians. [LISA] Switching gears a little bit could you tell us a little bit more
about your interactions with the Center for High-Rate Manufacturing, which was
funded by NSF? [BRENT] Well that started in 2004 and, by the way, this podcast when I
thought about it it really conjured up a lot of things I hadn’t thought of in a
while, so I thank you for inviting me. That started in 2004 and it was a
collaboration between Northeastern, UMass Lowell, and University of New Hampshire.
It was really special. We had a group of different scientists and engineers
coming together across three different universities. And the thing I loved about
it was it was focused on high-rate manufacturing. This to me was the real
win.That instead of talking about very specific devices in the literature that
you could do one time, their entire rubric was how can we
leverage our expertise, especially in plastics engineering, to really make
things go fast. How can you make millions of devices, not five devices. And in
addition, they really focused on the environmental product lifecycle impact,
which nowadays I would sum up as sustainability. How can you design
something and then understand its product lifecycle impact all the way
through end of life. And so I really enjoyed that and actually have pursued
sustainability all the way through to this day and I still work on
sustainability activities. [LISA] Well that’s another example of where collaboration, in this case, across universities had an impact on advancing the technology. [BRENT] That’s right some of the things that they did there, I think, were very new and
nanocomposites, molding of nano structures. They had an
entire group that started in flexible hybrid electronics, which was really the
concept of how do you take electronics and put it on a piece of plastic that’s
completely flexible? And then how do you make a million of those? And I think that
area is going to be really really interesting in the next five or ten
years. We’re gonna see a lot of people doing that. [LISA] Looking into the future, what are
some of the most significant challenges that will be solved or applications that
you see that nanotechnology will play a role in? [BRENT] Well I think nanotechnology is
going to solve a lot of potential big problems, but we first have a problem
with nanotechnology that I think a different field can solve. Artificial
intelligence is something I think we can use in nanotechnology and science writ
large to increase the speed of learning in our experiments. And I think we can do
that by inserting AI as a helper to humans. So
let me give you an example from my graduate career, which is you know fun. We
would build lots of different molecules, but the only way we were absolutely sure
if we had made a certain molecule was using x-ray crystallography. And in order
to do x-ray crystallography you had to make a crystal. Well to get a crystal to
grow is not an easy thing. And I had the habit of setting up crystal growth
chambers and then checking them every day. And if you move the crystals just a
little bit, crystals don’t grow. I would have really enjoyed using artificial
intelligence and real-time computer vision to monitor my crystal growth and
have it tell me, you have a crystal, come and look. Rather than me influencing it. And that is a similar kind of function that we see in nanocomposites, nanoparticles, generation of nanotubes, where there is a lot of activity in a chamber, growth chamber or something with a furnace, and we don’t know when it’s done. And we don’t know, real-time, what the status is, which we might call edge
computing as a way of monitoring. So I think that we are on the precipice of
helping the nanotechnologists, and scientists writ large, plan experiments, characterize
their outcomes, and then help them scale the really good results so we can go a
lot faster. And I’m very excited about this field. I think we’re going to see
this over and over again in the field coming up the next year or two years. [LISA] You
talked about how AI is going to impact discovery and research in nanotechnology,
but what is the impact of nanotechnology on the hardware that enables
advancements in AI? [BRENT] Okay. Wow taking me back.
let me lay out one area that I think is still in its infancy, but is worth
exploring. The computer chips that we use right now, even though they have a
thickness, they are essentially two-dimensional objects. They are
generated on a surface with a three-dimensional structure, but there is
only one real layer, one real active layer. And one of the things that
nanotechnology can do is to get devices off of the substrate and stack them. And
by stacking them, they become real three-dimensional objects and can even
be what I would call monolithic computing. That is, we have lots of layers
of things. One layer could be memory embedded within the architecture, one
layer could be for compute, one layer could be for sensors, one layer could be
just to transmit data off of a chip, and we haven’t really been able to do that
level of integration until now. And I think the technology is starting to
become available to see this idea of three dimensional monolithic
architectures, which will speed up computers by three or more orders of
magnitude. And the reason they’ll speed them up is because the time it takes to
transmit information will go from one chip transmitting to another chip in a
different location, which is a long distance, to devices transmitting maybe
just one micron or a half a micron or even a few nanometers within a chip. And
that’s gonna make them a lot faster. I can give you one more really on
potential for nanotechnology. The electronics industry right now is a
digital platform. It’s all ones and zeros. Something that has been observed with
nanotechnology and in some of my own work is the potential to have many
states so that one could read out lots of different states that are not just 0
and 1, but are between 0 & 1. And between 0 & 1
could be a number of ten states, it could be a hundred states, could be a thousand
states, it could be a billion states, depending upon how easily you’re able to
read it out. And I think that’s another possibility. I would call it analog
computing and you’ve probably seen more and more talk about this. That could also
be a game-changer. [LISA] Brent, I want to thank you again for taking the time to chat
with us this afternoon. do you have any closing thoughts that
you would like to share with our listeners? [BRENT] Well if I was going to start a
company out of graduate school again I would be very excited right now. I would
be looking at some of the world’s biggest problems and challenges. I would
be looking at nanotechnology and the potential to solve some of those
challenges, whether it’s in the energy domain, the water domain, new electronics
new batteries, even if you wanted to get into metrology, new microscopes. And I
would go for it. I think it’s a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur. And you need
energy, you need perseverance, of course you have to raise money, you have to have
a fantastic idea, but if you can get all those things together and surround
yourself with the right advisors, it is a fabulous experience and I would
recommend it to anybody to try. [LISA] Thank you for joining us today for this special 15
year anniversary edition of Stories from the NNI. If you would like to learn
more about nanotechnology please visit or email us at [email protected], and check back here for more stories.

Reynold King

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