In this tech-driven age, universities increasingly serve as spawning grounds for promising startups. One example is Nanofiber Separations, founded in 2011 by Hao Fong and Todd Menkhaus, chemical engineering professors at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.
The researchers have developed a “hyperefficient” filtration system made of nanofibers about 1,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair; a 12-inch square piece of the firm’s sticky nanofilter material might contain 5,000 miles of continuous, microscopic fiber. So far, the company has received one patent, with several pending, says CEO Craig Arnold, whose resume includes six years as director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Arnold says the technology will have important applications in several industries, including the manufacture of bio-pharmaceuticals and bio-tissue development, water purification and desalination, air purification, and aerospace. The company, mostly self-funded so far, will likely seek its first equity capital this year, according to Arnold.
Early last year, Nanofiber Separations Nanofiber Separations received a Small Business Innovation Research grant of more than $700,000 from the National Science Foundation. And it won the 2014 Governor’s Giant Vision Business Award, which included a $20,000 prize. Arnold says the firm is using the funds to scale up and begin pilot-manufacturing its custom-formulated nanofiber mats.
A relative newcomer to South Dakota, Arnold sees a state with “a lot of advantages in and of itself,” citing the state’s business-friendly tax structure and regulatory climate and a state government that encourages public-private partnerships and programs to help businesses grow. To help with its R&D efforts, Nanofiber Separations has used the state’s Dakota Seeds grant program to hire several student interns. Designed to promote internships, the program can provide 50 percent of an intern’s wages, with a maximum of $2,000 per intern.
Headquarters: Rapid City
Leadership: Hao Fong and Todd Menkhaus, cofounders;
Craig Arnold, CEO
Revenue: Not disclosed
Description: Develops nanofiber filtration systems