Entrepreneurial engineer receives national, local honors
“This year is one of the most exciting years of my life.” That probably is an understatement by University of Louisville postdoctoral student Mehdi Yazdanpanah, for whom 2009 has brought two significant awards that are positioning his nanomaterials research and related company — NaugaNeedles LLC — for growth.
The most recent accolade launches the 2006 Speed School of Engineering alumnus into the first class of 13 researchers nationwide with the Kauffman Entrepreneur Postdoctoral Fellowship. The yearlong program of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation features entrepreneurial education and mentorship to help the researchers commercialize their scientific discoveries.
Yazdanpanah was chosen from 115 applicants for this inaugural class.
“Dr. Yazdanpanah is in elite company among the awardees, and we are proud of his accomplishments in taking NaugaNeedles from the lab to the marketplace as an entrepreneur,” Speed School Dean Mickey Wilhelm said.
The fellowship begins with an October workshop at the foundation’s headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., where the class will hear from entrepreneurship experts. The program will match Yazdanpanah with an academic adviser and an experienced investor or corporate leader to serve as a business mentor.
“It definitely is going to be a big help and a great source of networking for us,” he said, adding that he hopes to learn how to really grow his business and to understand “the system and how it really works.”
“In the past 20 years I was just learning science, but in my heart I was an entrepreneur.”
NaugaNeedles also received a boost this spring when it won the $120,000 Vogt Invention and Innovation Award, a program of The Enterprise Corp. of Greater Louisville Inc. and the Community Foundation of Louisville. The Vogt Award is intended to recognize excellence in product innovation and provide engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs with grant money to fund the product development and commercialization of their ideas.
The company used that funding to establish a manufacturing facility, do some marketing and pay for the cost of the exclusive license from UofL for the technology, Yazdanpanah said.
Founded in 2007, NaugaNeedles has its beginning in the UofL lab. Having earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in his native Iran, Yazdanpanah arrived in Louisville in December 2001 for doctoral study and began his work with UofL electrical and computer engineering professor Robert Cohn.
It was there that he discovered a new way of making microscopic nanowires — small, needle-like structures a thousand times thinner than a human hair.
Yazdanpanah developed the process to the point that he can grow nanoneedle-tipped probes now trademarked as NeedleProbes “at any place we want and in any direction.”
“It's a new method of making things but in a small scale. Our needles are really tough and they don’t break. They buckle” he said, and release like a spring.
Besides being flexible, the tiny structures reflect light well, resist corrosion and are electrically conductive.
The nanofabrication technique, for which Yazdanpanah and others have two provisional patents and one full patent pending, also can be used to improve other companies’ devices or tools.
“We grow our nanowires on their devices and make them better,” he said. And the technology is “very reproducible, easy to do at room temperature, no special gas or pressure — just do it.”
“Right now our devices are being used by more than 50 research groups, and they seem to be pretty happy,” he said.
The potential use of the devices in biomedical applications, sensors, tools, semiconducting or ways that aren’t yet envisioned, excites the scientist-businessman.
So does building his business.
Creating jobs, Yazdanpanah said, is his main goal. NaugaNeedles now has four part-time employees, one full-time employee and three consultants; the work force includes two other UofL graduates. Some day, he hopes, it will have 100 to 200 employees.
“I enjoy doing the entrepreneurial work at the beginning of a company. It’s a lot of work, but it’s like playing a game you like. If you do what you enjoy, you’ll be successful.”