By Tess Postema

This kitchen garden system uses Nanosystem’s biofoam with peat moss to create an ideal and sustainable growing media.

For Dr. John Nanos, the future is foaming with possibilities.

Dr. Nanos is the owner, CEO, and formerly sole employee of Ann Arbor-based Nanosystems, Inc., a chemical company that develops specialty prepolymer materials used in a variety of consumer products, from cosmetic sponges and earplugs to medical dressings.  In a nutshell, Dr. Nanos’ research focuses on the chemistry of foam structures.

Or as Dr. Nanos, who holds a PhD in Organic Polymer Chemistry from the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, likes to put it: “I get to play with foam all day.” But not just any type of synthetic foam — say, a garden variety dish sponge. Nanosystems produces hydrophilic (or super absorbent) foams that not only absorb water, but also retain it extremely well.

Dr. Nanos, with the air of a particularly enthusiastic science teacher, demonstrates this effect, pouring water into a Slurpee-sized paper cup filled with a small amount of his patented chemical mix.  The solution expands rapidly, overflowing the cup, and in a few seconds is transformed into a dry, flexible foam piece.

The porous structure of the foam makes it an ideal candidate for organic matter.

 

Nanosystems’ technology is already being used in a variety of widely-available products, including items as disparate as specialty cosmetic applicators , medical bandages, diapers, and earplugs. But how can a one-man shop hope to compete with the vast R&D resources of global biochemical companies?  Specialized talent and location certainly help.

And then there were two

This past summer, Dr. Nanos was able to hire an intern through the Michigan Corporate Relations Network (MCRN) Small Company Internship Award (SCIA) program, which is funded by a grant (administered by the University of Michigan) from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

SCIA provides funds to small Michigan businesses in STEM fields that hire students from any of Michigan’s 15 public universities for summer internships.  SCIA matches half of the intern’s total wages, up to $3,500.

SCIA allowed Dr. Nanos to employ Bryce Kriegman, a recently graduated U-M Master’s student in Material Science & Engineering ,with relevant experience in bio-scaffolding, at “half-price”. Even in a summer timeframe, Bryce was able to create and improve upon a new formula that could prove more sustainable than traditional petroleum-based foams.  “This project has discovered a very useful composite of bio-based super-absorbing and bio-based foam polymers,” states Dr. Nanos.  This development can help Nanosystems expand into the burgeoning markets for environmentally-friendly products.

Bryce adds that the internship has “given me an opportunity to lead my own research and develop industry connections,” something that wouldn’t necessarily be possible at a larger company right off the bat.  And he will be staying on at Nanosystems in a part-time capacity, retaining his spark of talent within the Michigan economy.

Location, location, location

Nanosystems’ lab is littered with dry foam squares, product samples, and lattice-work cubes constructed of sinuous black plastic — enlarged 3D prints of foam structures from a local 3D printing firm. They are one of the many small companies and startups housed at Michigan Innovation Headquarters (MI-HQ), a sprawling co-working space and tech incubator on the outskirts of Ann Arbor.  

Anchored by Wacker Silicones, an R&D division of the chemical giant Wacker Chemie AG, MI-HQ is also home to many past recipients of SCIA and Small Company Innovation Program (which provides matching funds for joint company/university research projects).