Ventures News: Imago Slings Fastest Microscope in the Midwest, Maybe the World

10.02.2003 | Wirtschaftspresse

Feb. 10, 2003 – After gearing up at a sedate Wisconsin pace since 1994, Imago Scientific Instruments Corp. of Madison, Wis., has glided smoothly onto the fast track since receiving a $7 million seal of approval last fall from venture funders.

Imago's Local Electrode Atom Probe (LEAP) microscope analyzes materials atom by atom and produces detailed imaging and analysis in three dimensions.

Atom probe microscopes have been around for decades, but LEAP's claim to fame is its blazing analytic speed – one million atoms per minute – and the fact that it can analyze semiconducting or nonconducting materials.

Last fall, Imago sold its first microscope, a prototype, to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for more than $1 million, to be delivered at the end of April. Several other potential customers are considering a purchase, said Thomas F. Kelly, the company's co-founder and chief technology officer.

Kelly also sees a market in magnetic storage and semiconductor companies, nanotechnology processes and biotech. "If we get the imaging capability for biological materials working, then the most obvious target is for drug discovery," he said.

He said that right now it takes three months to build up a picture of proteins at the atomic level, but Imago's LEAP might be able to do it in a week or just a few days. "It's not going to be easy, but we have some good ideas on how to make that work."

Mike Miller, senior research staff member in the microscopy and microanalytical sciences group in ORNL's Metals and Ceramics Division, said a British company had been proposing to sell a similar microscope, but wasn't ready. "That's why we went with Imago."

Miller's team worked with Imago in developing the instrument, so he believes his lab is a good test market. "We're very keen on the technique. It's about the only thing that can solve the questions on material science," he said.

Warren Packard, managing director of Imago's lead venture funder Draper Fisher Jurvetson, said the fit between Imago and his firm was obvious.

"Our first reaction was, 'My gosh, this is really, really cool! We don't know anybody else doing this!' As we did our research we found out it really is unique and talking to possible customers, we found there was a need for this."

So far, Imago doesn't have any competitors – not even, surprisingly, in Europe where the first atom probe microscopes were developed. But Kelly expects some eventually.

Barriers to entry are formidable – assembling the necessary expertise, and huge time and financial investments, but he believes several large Japanese companies that know instrumentation very well, such as Hitachi or Seiko, for example, could pull together an effort.

Researchers in England, France and Germany had the best microscope instrumentation in the 1990s, Kelly said, but Imago has uncovered a breakthrough technology and the Europeans have not mounted an effort on the same scale. "They don't have the technology we have – nor the speed we can do."

– Research by Gretchen McNeely