This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase. See more posts in the series »
Of all the small business owners nominated for a big national award, by far our favourite was Kentucky’s Mehdi Yazdanpanah and his company Nauga Needles.
Nauga Needles makes “nano-needles” — incredibly small metal wires sharp points that are being used by researchers to manipulate, probe, and measure things on a microscopic level.
The whole thing started after Yazdanpanah, an Iranian immigrant, made an accidental and fortunate discovery in a lab at the University of Louisville, where he was a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering.
“It was actually in 2004 where, by accident I found that silver and gallium react with each other at room temperature. Through this reaction, mother nature makes a nano-needle-like structure,” he says.
Once the graduate student figured out how to make needles form individually, he immediately saw the potential.
Yazdanpanah didn’t come to America to start a business.
“I was a foreign student here on a visa, and I had $500 in my savings account, so there was no way, in my imagination, that I could some day be a businessman,” he says.
There was a language barrier, a culture barrier, and an experience barrier.
“It was scary at the beginning to come here because it’s a very different country, but the transition ended up being so smooth. That’s why they call it the land of the American Dream,” he says.
What helped him transition from scientist to CEO was a Kauffman postdoctoral fellowship in 2009, which provided funding and taught him the basics of running a business.
There are also certain advantages to living in Kentucky, like much cheaper costs than in Silicon Valley.
He was able to hire people from the University of Louisville who were already familiar with the technology, though he says talent can be rough, particularly on the business side.
Nauga Needles already has six full-time and four part-time employees, with some work outsourced. The long-term goal is to manufacture everything in Louisville.
The location made finding private funding difficult, however, even as the Internet made it possible to sell product everywhere. Without the luxury of big investments, Nauga Needles had to start selling right away.
Eventually the company got a loan from Louisville for equipment, won a business plan competition, got funding from the state of Kentucky, and won a grant from the National Science Foundation.
“It took all of this together. The best part of it was because we had the sales that were helping us to grow organically. Now we are at the point where we can raise money, but our backs are not against the wall,” Yazdanpanah said. “We have some breathing room and we’re looking for the smart money.”
Right now, their major customers are researchers in the semiconductor industry, biology, physics, and nano-mechanical engineering.
“We’re making tools that enable researchers to do things in nano-scale,” Yazdanpanah said.
He thinks the applications will only grow. Right now, for example, he is working on a blood test kit that can detect and count cancer cells.
Nanotechnology is in its infancy right now, but the potential is huge.
“I like to say that I didn’t get a Ph.D. to get a job, I got a Ph.D. to create jobs,” he says. “And I hope that some day my company hires thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands. That’s my dream come true.”
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