UbiQD Expects its Quantum Dot Technology Will Soon Be Ubiquitous
Startup founder says VAF helped the company fast-track growth
UbiQD’s name is a play on the words “ubiquitous quantum dots,” and ubiquitous is exactly what Dr. Hunter McDaniel wants his company’s product to be.
“We make quantum dots that are going to be everywhere in all sorts of different applications,” he said. “The quantum dots that are on the market today are toxic, expensive, and sometimes unstable. We’ve solved those problems with a new class of materials that have low-toxicity, long-term stability, and are inexpensive by comparison. This is enabling new products.”
Quantum dots are colloidal semiconductor nanocrystals—vanishingly small nanoparticles of material. According to UbiQD’s website, “simply put, quantum dots are nanomaterials reshaping how we use color and light.” UbiQD is targeting different quantum dot applications than other companies because their patented technology does not include toxic heavy metals like cadmium and lead, which are found in previous generations of quantum dots.
McDaniel founded UbiQD in 2014 after leaving Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where he was a postdoc in the Chemistry Division. The technology at UbiQD is based on technology developed by LANL and M.I.T., McDaniel said. “It’s a transition from bench-top into the marketplace; we are commercializing and licensing technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory and M.I.T.”
The Regional Development Corporation (RDC), an economic development organization working to create jobs and attract revenue in Northern New Mexico, first recognized UbiQD as a company with high growth potential in 2015. The RDC honored the company with a Northern New Mexico 20/20 Award, a designation reserved for companies on track to double their workforce and/or revenues before the year 2020.
In that same year, UbiQD was one of four companies to receive an investment from the Venture Acceleration Fund (VAF), the only program in Northern New Mexico that provides seed money for early-stage technology startups and growth-oriented businesses that lack the collateral for debt financing. Administered since its inception in 2006 by the RDC, the VAF is funded primarily by Los Alamos National Security (LANS) with additional support from Los Alamos County, Santa Fe County, City of Santa Fe Economic Development and New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).
Mentored by RDC staff and LANL’s Feynman Center for Innovation, McDaniel was able to receive “no-strings-attached money that we were able to use for very critical early expenses. It’s validation and it fills that critical hole at the beginning when it’s hardest to raise money.” That said, “even more valuable than the money was the vetting process,” according to McDaniel—seeing that others besides himself saw potential in the company.
UbiQD went on to win a Phase 1 SBIR (Small Business Innovation & Research) grants from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Closer to home, the company also won the 2016 Ski Lift Pitch competition, sponsored by startup accelerator ABQid.
“This recognition validates what we’re doing here at UbiQD,” said Matt Bergren, UbiQD Vice President. “It’s just a taste of what’s to come for the company. We have a lot of things in the works right now, and I’m very excited to see how everything is progressing.”
VAF Investment Fast-tracked Company’s Growth
UbiQD unlocked the VAF money in two stages in 2015—when they first made a domestic sale of their technology, and when they made their first international sale. The company counts Cornell University, University of Texas, LANL, Stanford, Unilever, Nikon, University of Milan, and the University of British Columbia among their national and international research clients. Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies as well as research and development scientists also count themselves among UbiQD’s ever-growing list of clients.
UbiQD currently has seven full-time, several part-time employees, and has doubled its workforce each year since its inception. Highly skilled employees will continue to fuel the company’s growth. As they anticipate more growth, Bergren said that chemical engineering graduates as well as materials science graduates will be in particular demand.
Small Applications with Large-Scale Market Appeal
UbiQD’s current focus is on developing luminescent solar concentrator technology for urban centers. In this application quantum dots absorb sunlight and convert it to infra-red light, which is then diverted to solar cells on the window’s frame. “It’s a simple cost-effective way to generate electricity from a window,” McDaniel said.
There are a lot of possibilities for UbiQD to grow exponentially in the coming years. McDaniel cited commercial buildings as the prime example. Tall buildings, many of which already use advanced window technologies, would theoretically be able to upgrade with UbiQD’s technology, and therefore, be self-powered.
As far as what’s next for UbiQD, LED lighting and security-ink applications are also gaining momentum, said Bergren. UbiQD is actively seeking partners wanting to jointly develop products and technology in these and other areas.
McDaniel says it took nine tries to successfully obtain SBIR funding. “Success is trying a lot, failing a lot, and learning from those mistakes,” said McDaniel. “You’ve got to have thick skin. You don’t learn from winning or succeeding, you learn by failing. It’s critical to fail.”
“Don’t give up,” said Bergren. “That’s the big lesson for any startup. You’re going to hear a lot of people telling you ‘no’ or that you are ‘too early’. You’ve got to keep trying and learn from feedback.”
The company moved into its own Los Alamos-based facility last July, from its initial location at the New Mexico Consortium (also in Los Alamos). The RDC will continue to support UbiQD’s astonishing growth trajectory in the coming months and years with mentoring, support and assistance to help UbiQD create jobs and attract the highly skilled workforce they’ll need to support their current and future growth.