Imina Technologies speeds up experiments at the nanoscale
Imina Technologies is a start-up company which stems from the Laboratory of Systems Robotics of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL). It was founded by three engineers in the beginning of 2009 to market a novel type of nanomanipulator, the miBot. The unique working principle of the miBot combines extreme ease of use as well as very high precision positioning, making it possible for the user to carry out experiments under the microscope up to ten times as fast as those carried out with a traditional manipulator.
These nanomanipulators, also known as “mobile microrobots” in the trade jargon, are the result of almost 10 years of research at the EPFL. The size of a dice, these microrobots sport three degrees of horizontal freedom and one arm, hence conferring a fourth degree of freedom which allows an object to be moved in the vertical plane. The smallest step that a mobile microrobot is able to take is barely a few nanometres wide – a distance some 10,000 times as small as the width of a human hair, or one hundred carbon atoms set side by side. Novel nano production means
The first miBot prototypes were developed within various multidisciplinary Swiss and European projects. Their high positioning performance coupled with their very compact design have been exploited more than once to carry out manipulatory tasks under the microscope. For example, they have been used to characterise and compare attachment forces between nano-objects that have been assembled using different bio-inspired methods, foreshadowing novel production techniques at the nanometre scale. For a microelectronic project, the piezoelectric characteristics of carbon nanotubes were measured using several mobile microrobots, an application which paved the way for the very first developments of novel integrated circuit technology.
It was the enthusiasm shown by the first users which led the founders of Imina to study a little more closely the commercial opportunity that lay in this new kind of nanomanipulator. In so doing, it rapidly became apparent that, from a practical point of view, there is neither a simple nor an intuitive solution for the movement and interaction of objects on the nanometre scale. However, in research, ongoing experiments are continuously evolving and it is important that any progression is not hindered by the equipment used. The market for Imina Technologies’ innovative products comprises the thousands of laboratories active in nanotechnology, materials science and cell biology – public institutions and private companies alike.
Imina Technologies’ products are not confined to the miBot. As the company is always seeking to simplify any installation and its use as much as possible, it offers complete solutions for both micro and nanomanipulation. Standard packages can include several manipulators; they are able to operate under vacuum or not, and they can also be mounted with a module for electric characterisation. Furthermore, in order to satisfy as many users as possible, Imina technologies offers “plug-and-play” solutions so that users hiring the occasional microscope from a microscope centre can set up their experiment within minutes. The cluster effect
Imina’s team is made up of engineers who have complementary competencies to ensure the development of a product and its industrialisation. The great majority of the components of the nanomanipulators are made in Switzerland, where the company benefits from the skills of subcontractors from the watch industry for the manufacture and processing of microtechnical parts. The final assembly and adjustments are always carried out on the company’s premises so as to guarantee the irreproachable quality of its products.
From the very beginning, Imina Technologies was granted substantial external help to support the project, both on the financial and the strategic front. The Innogrant awarded to the founders by the EPFL enabled them to transform the mobile microrobot prototype into a marketable product. The Venture Kick programme along with support from the FIT Foundation gave the founders the means to market the product in 2010, thanks to the judicious advice given by the CTI Start-up programme coaches. Finally, the KPMG Tomorrow’s Market Award, which Imina Technologies also won in 2009, emphasises the potential of the technological innovation the company is putting forward.
A number of institutional laboratories reputed for their research in nanotechnology – such as the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in France, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and, of course, the EPFL – have already acquired several systems. In 2011, partnerships with distributors in the United States of America will help Imina Technologies to develop its offer in a very high potential market as well as to bank on a turnover of over half a million francs.
En français dans le texte
Les robots à l’échelle du nano d’Imina
Imina Technologies est une start-up issue du Laboratoire de Systèmes Robotiques de l’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Elle a été fondée début 2009 par trois ingénieurs de ce laboratoire dans le but de commercialiser un nouveau type de nanomanipulateur, le miBot. Le mode de fonctionnement unique du miBot permet de combiner à la fois une simplicité extrême d’utilisation et une très haute précision de positionnement, offrant la possibilité à l’utilisateur d’effectuer des expériences sous microscope jusqu’à dix fois plus rapidement qu’avec un manipulateur traditionnel. Résultat de 10 ans de recherche à l’EPFL les miBot, de la taille d’un dé à jouer, ont trois degrés de liberté horizontaux et un bras ajoutant un quatrième degré pour déplacer un objet verticalement. La taille du plus petit pas que peuvent effectuer ces micro-robots mobiles est de quelques nanomètres, équivalant à une distance environ 10’000 fois plus petite que la largeur d’un cheveu humain ou d’une centaine d’atomes de carbone.
Plusieurs laboratoires d’instituts réputés pour leur recherche en nanotechnologie tels que le CEA Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) en France, l’université technologique néerlandaise (TUDelft) et bien sûr l’EPFL ont déjà acquis des systèmes. En 2011, des partenariats avec des distributeurs aux Etats-Unis vont permettre de développer l’offre sur un marché à très fort potentiel et de tabler sur un chiffre d’affaire de plus d’un demi-million de francs.