San Marcos tech company bets big on tiny quantum dots
BY KIRK LADENDORF - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, November 16, 2013
If you are geeky enough, you can appreciate why quantum dots are
fascinating to materials scientists and entrepreneurs — and to big
television companies like Japan’s Sony Corp.
The dots are tiny, tiny crystals — discovered in a chemistry lab in the
early 1980s — that give off precise colors of light when they are excited
by an energy source. And a company that has the right chemistry
know-how can alter the colors of the light emitted by changing the
size of the crystals it produces.
Naturally, quantum dots have attracted
a number of small companies that have
found ways of producing dots for
commercial use. Some medical device
makers use small quantities of dots as
substitutes for dyes so that doctors and
researchers can better distinguish the
difference between healthy and
diseased tissue in the body. Such dots
are very expensive, costing between
$3,000 and $10,000 a gram, according
to experts in the field.
Sony Corp. became the first big
manufacturer to introduce a high-end line of flat-panel TVs that use
the dots to deliver more precise colors. Sony introduced the high-end
TVs under its Triluminos brand early this year and analysts raved
about the spectacular colors they delivered. The new Sony models are
considerably more expensive than conventional flat-panel television
sets. Other display makers including South Korea’s Samsung
Electronics Co. and LG Corp. are also reported to be studying ways to
incorporate the dots into advanced TVs.
So all of that activity explains why Stephen Squires, CEO of San Marcos-based Quantum Materials Corp., is excited about the longterm
prospects for his small company that presently has just a dozen
The San Marcos company produces a
different kind of dot — called a tetrapod
— that Squires says has the potential to
be better, cheaper and easier to work
with than conventional dots. The big
difference is shape. Conventional dots
are tiny spheres that Squires describes
as tiny bowling balls. But the tetrapod
dot has a spherical core with four arms
that stick out like spikes.
The shape and the structure of the
tetrapod, Squires believes, makes it a
better candidate for commercialization
than conventional dots, which tend to
clump together when they are
manufactured, which harms their lightemitting
properties. With the arms sticking out, tetrapod dots
disperse more easily. And the new dots can be engineered so that they
emit two colors of light at the same time — one color from the core
and a second from the arms. Potentially that means TV makers and
other customers could use fewer dots to accomplish the same task.
In addition to shape, Squires’ company has the exclusive license to
make its dots in a process discovered by Rice University researcher
Michael Wong. Quantum Materials has spent six years perfecting the
process and getting it ready to be used for high-volume
This year, the company has supplied sample quantities of its dots to
three unnamed potential customers — an Asian display manufacturer,
an LED light maker and a maker of advanced medical devices. And two
of those customers are showing signs of strong interest — they have
ordered new samples of slightly tweaked tetrapod dots that are closer
to their development needs, Squires said.
While those early potential customers study those samples, Quantum
Materials is ordering the equipment it needs to ramp up higher
volume manufacturing in the first half of next year. The company is
based in the Star Park incubation center for technology companies
that is affiliated with Texas State University. It also is collaborating
with Texas State researcher Tania Betancourt.
Quantum Materials has raised $3 million so far and it expects to raise
more in the coming year from a small group of investors, that includes
If things go well and its potential customers commit to significant
orders, the company could shift from being a small research and
development company to a somewhat larger chemical manufacturing operation. It will do its own manufacturing to protect its intellectual
property, Squires said.
Texas State chemistry professor Gary Beall, a veteran of several
nanomaterials startups, rates Quantum Materials as a promising
company that has moved beyond the bootstrapping stage. Part of the
struggle for young companies in the field is finding the right potential
customers and convincing those customers that newer materials can
lower costs or produce better products.
But Squires said his company hasn’t had to engage in prolonged
customer education yet, because manufacturers are approaching it.
They have already studied the potential of quantum dots and wanting
to investigate whether tetrapod dots are superior and more
“The quantum dot has been widely studied,” said company research
vice president David Doderer. “The hindrance to acceptance has been
cost and the ability to scale (production).”
The education Quantum Materials has to do, Squires said, is prove
that its dots are better and can be made more efficiently that
competing dot makers.
“We are educating display makers on why the tetrapod dot is way
better,” he said. “The company’s progress is very encouraging to see.
We can see the finish line, but we are not there yet.”