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The following was originally published by CompanyWeek and can be found here. Words by Eric Peterson, photos by Jonathan Castner.
Forge Nano‘s atomic layer deposition (ALD) is “a unique coating technology that allows you to put on a very uniform, pinhole-free, one-atom-at-a-time layer,” says Lichty.
ALD has been utilized by the semiconductor and OLED industries for some time, but Forge Nano’s particle ALD hadn’t been scaled outside of a research setting before the company’s founding.
First developed in the 1960s, it lacked a scalable manufacturing process for the commercial market — until Forge Nano came around, that is.
At University of Colorado Boulder, Lichty helped develop a new method for nano-coating surfaces that he thought could scale for use in lithium-ion batteries. After the university’s Tech Transfer Office declined to try to take it to market, Lichty bought the rights for $1 and went into business in his Westminster garage. He soon moved to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Broomfield.
A decade later, Forge Nano manufactures both ALD equipment and offers contract ALD services to the commercial market. The catalog includes machines designed for several different applications, including battery production, powder coating, and semiconductor manufacturing.
“For small quantities, we toll-coat that, and for larger quantities, we sell the large equipment and put that in facilities and train them up,” says Lichty. “We have both of those models. . . . At this point, we’re selling a lot more machines.”
Lichty terms Forge Nano’s product suite as an “innovation platform,” the collective differentiator being scalability.
“I think you can look back at the early 2000s nanotech boom from venture investing and see what went wrong there,” he says. “What we do at sub-nanometer scale is really powerful. It unlocks some amazing performance, and that cascades into amazing products. But you really have to scale it and you have to make it affordable — and that’s what we’ve done here.”
Lichty describes an ongoing process of iteration “from the garage prototype to something that can do hundreds of kilos and now we have systems that can do thousands of tons,” adding, “That whole way, it’s the same process, the same invention, that’s how long it takes us to get the capital, to build the systems, to qualify, and get the customer interest to get more capital to build the next system.”
As of 2022, about 80 percent of the business is tied to lithium-ion batteries and semiconductors. “Now we have the capabilities to make commercial-scale quantities of materials in those markets. We have the equipment that can service them, and a lot of that equipment is in the field right now.”
For lithium-ion batteries, Forge Nano is quickly emerging as an industry standard. “Our CTO got introduced at a battery conference last month [May 2022]. The guy who introduced him said, ‘This is James Trevey, CTO of Forge Nano,’ and then he said, ‘Forge Nano works with everybody.’ That’s pretty much the truth, especially in the lithium-ion space: We work with just about everybody.”
There’s a reason for that. “We upgrade every component that goes into the battery,” says Lichty. “What we’re able to do is apply nanoscale control, and that’s a very different distinction from nanoscale features. There are a lot of nanotech companies that can build a feature that has nanoscale characteristics, but Forge Nano and its ALD process is one of the only processes that gives you nanoscale control. With that control, we can take these micron-scale materials that are normal to battery production and we can fine-tune them and extract efficiency and increase robustness in them.”
“In layman’s terms, we take the existing materials, we increase the energy, we increase the range, we increase the cycle life, we improve the fast-charge capability — so a true 10-minute fast charge without destroying the battery or generating massive amounts of heat. We do all that while making the batteries safer. Our nanocoatings act as firewalls between all the individual particles, so even if one of them gets to a heat point and starts an exothermic reaction, it’s much harder for that to propagate throughout the cell. And we also do all of that while bringing the costs down.”
The technology doesn’t require a reinvention of the supply chain or existing manufacturing logistics for battery makers. “We get more out of the same amount of materials than people are getting now,” says Lichty. “If somebody’s making 100 gigawatt-hours in a current factory, if they implement our technology, with the same materials input they’re using today, they can get 120 gigawatt-hours out of it.”
Forge Nano is also seeing plenty of demand from the semiconductor industry. “This technology is used in semiconductor manufacturing today — your cell phone has components with ALD coatings on them — but the surface area on those components is really tiny,” says Lichty. “We started to get really good at getting the reactions to occur fast, moving them through, and increasing throughput. So right now, our tools in the semiconductor space are both the fastest — I think we’re about four times faster than any other semiconductor ALD tool on the market — and more efficient. We’re about 50 times more efficient with precursor utilization compared to anybody else.”
That kind of efficiency is increasingly critical as semiconductors get more and more sophisticated, he adds.
In Thornton, about half of the company’s workforce is involved in production. “All of the design, control software, electrical cabinet building, we do all of that in-house,” says Lichty. “We’ve built a team that’s really capable of putting together whatever we need. Then we have a lot of vendors: For any of these systems, there’s going to be several hundred components that you need to buy for it, whether it’s thermocouples or pressure transducers or monitors.”
“We’ve really tried to make sure we have as much of that capability and know-how in-house as possible,” he adds. “One, we get a lot of customization that needs to happen on our systems, and it allows us to be flexible to that. Two, in some of these systems we’re on like our eighth iteration, and we just keep getting better as a team.”
He continues, “The third one is — if the pandemic has helped shed light on anything — is having all of your components come from overseas or assembled by third parties can really lead to some logistical nightmares.”
To accommodate growth, Forge Nano relocated from 18,000 square feet in Louisville, Colorado, to a roughly 40,000-square-foot space in Thornton in spring 2020. “We needed more space,” says Lichty. “We still do. We have already started to stretch at the seams of our current facility.”
The acquisition of 15-employee ALD NanoSolutions in 2020 necessitated the move. “It was basically the only other company in this particle ALD space,” says Lichty. “With that merger, we were operating two separate facilities, both in Colorado, and we consolidated them all into one.”
Forge Nano had more than 100 active projects in 2021, including work with VitriVax, Spire Global, TexPower, and a wide range of battery and semiconductor players.
A $20 million Series A in 2016 catalyzed the commercialization. “That’s what allowed us to build out this equipment at a very large scale,” says Lichty.
Annual revenue doubled in 2019, 2020, and 2021. “Now the market’s educated, the value proposition is clear, and we’re growing as fast as we have the resources to,” says Lichty, forecasting a similar trajectory in 2022 and beyond.
“As a physical science company, doubling year over year based on revenues or profits is about as good as you can get, simply because we’ve got to build more machines and more build bays and buy steel and things like that,” he notes. “We hope to leapfrog or make some bigger gains based on the next couple of years based on access to capital and putting it to exactly where we know there’s growth sitting there waiting for us.”
Challenges: “Supply chain and hiring have been challenging this last year or two,” says Lichty. “With the pandemic and low unemployment and the competitiveness of the battery technology space, that’s been a little more challenging than before. I also think we lucked out, because being in Colorado and having a high-tech company that’s got this mission towards making sustainable products, helping with climate change, et cetera, we’re pretty good at recruiting just by word of mouth.”
With battery and semiconductor manufacturing largely overseas, Forge Nano sometimes encounters logistical challenges, he adds. “It has been challenging with most of the battery market being in Asia, so being a U.S. company having to do business overseas, it’s always challenging just with the distance and the time zones and the languages and things like that.”
Lichty says that is starting to change with a concerted push to boost manufacturing in other locales: “It’s really been good to see the U.S. and Europe starting to build up their battery infrastructure. That’s helped accelerate things a lot faster.”
Opportunities: While batteries and semiconductors are the primary markets, Forge Nano is working to bring ALD to metal additive manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and catalysts for chemical production.
“Our company has an infrastructure that we’ve built where we can be a very rapid innovation pipeline for these markets,” says Lichty. “We’ve had some customers go from small-scale R&D to buying the full-scale equipment in six months, and they’d never heard of atomic layer deposition and they didn’t know it would work for their application, so a whole new market opportunity for us, and we can move very, very fast.”
That said, he’s especially bullish on metal additive manufacturing for aerospace applications with aluminum and titanium alloys. “They’ve been desperately wanting to get those capabilities into the 3D-printing market, because that’s the best use case for 3D printing,” says Lichty. “We have some high hopes for that in the near term.”
Needs: Talent, a second facility, and capital, says Lichty. He expects the company to have 150 employees by the end of 2023. “We’re raising funds right now to capture a little bit more [of the market],” he explains. “This isn’t VC capital, this is growth capital.”