If San Diego’s Grolltex is correct, bendable display screens for smartphones, tablets and other gadgets aren’t the stuff of science fiction. They’re just around the corner.
The two-year-old start-up has licensed technology developed at UC San Diego to mass produce graphene — a strong, conductive material that is
Now used mostly by research labs – including contractors working for NASA – graphene has the potential to power the next generation of very accurate sensors, water desalination membranes and flexible electronics.
Grolltex’s formula of licensing technologies from local research universities to launch businesses is increasingly being touted as the equation that will drive Southern California’s start-up economy.
“There are great schools and research institutions here, particularly in life sciences — a lot of Nobel laureates,” said Bill Maris, former head of Google Ventures, at the 15th annual San Diego Venture Summit this week. “There is every reason to be optimistic that San Diego and Southern California should have an amazing next five or 10 years from a start-up perspective.”
Organized by the San Diego Venture Group, the Venture Summit drew more than 670 people to downtown San Diego. The two-day gathering included 28 local start-ups pitching their companies to more than 120 venture capitalists.
Maris, who resides in San Diego, recently launched a $150 million venture fund called Section 32. He said Wednesday it was almost fully invested in young companies. The fund put money into start-ups in life sciences, crypto-currency and other sectors. He didn’t offer more details about Section 32’s portfolio.
“I feel really excited about the companies we have been able to invest in,” he said. “I feel they represent the best opportunities I could find over the last 12 months, and we hope to continue that.”
Maris was founder and chief executive of Google Ventures (GV), the corporate venture capital arm of the Internet search giant. Over eight years, GV managed $2.5 billion and invested in more than 350 start-ups, including Uber, Nest, Slack and DocuSign.
Maris left Google in 2016 and started Section 32 in San Diego. He pointed to work by the Alliance for Southern California Innovation – headed by former California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner – as an example of how Southern California can “double down” on its strengths to become a mecca for start-ups.
Poizner’s group is working to streamline and standardize technology transfers out of the region’s universities and research institutions in hopes of spawning more start-ups.
“The Bay Area is an amazing place filled with smart, talented people,” said Maris. “There is a lot to love. There is also a tremendous amount of traffic. Real estate prices are inflated. The pay scales to hire talent are very difficult for start-ups. I think the Southern California ecosystem offers a lot of things that are solutions to those problems.”
A handful of San Diego start-ups showed off their technologies at the Venture Summit, including several that have roots in UC San Diego.
Nanome, for example, pairs virtual reality gear with computer modeling software to help pharmaceutical companies design new drugs. The company was founded by four UCSD students and recently raised $680,000 in seed funding. It is working to expand its virtual reality tools into other molecular design fields.
NanoCellect Biomedical has licensed technology from the university to produce a cell-sorting device for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. It’s akin to a Coinstar machine but for cell biologists, said Will Alaynick, chief operating officer.
“Just as Coinstar sorts out a mixture of coins, this can un-mix a mixture of cells,” said Alaynick. “So if I am doing stem cell research and made liver cells, but maybe only 10 percent of my mixture is liver cells. I can get them out in this machine.”
Grolltex, which raised $1 million in seed funding, is making graphene mostly for research now. But the company believes it is just a matter of time before it shows up in products, said Chief Executive and co-founder Jeff Draa.
“The way to think about graphene is that today silicon is a very important material for devices, but someday silicon is going to start to run out of gas,” said Draa. “Device makers are going to seek other materials, and we think graphene is an important material to replace (silicon) for some application