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Aculon’s Coatings Make Sure Surface Problems Are Covered

Many a cellphone has met its demise by a quick dip in the pool, sink, toilet or birdbath.

A Sorrento Valley business is trying to counter the water problem — and a few other engineering problems to boot — with some innovative specialty chemicals.

Aculon Inc. makes chemicals that electronics manufacturers can apply with ease. In some cases the chemicals go on in layers one millionth or one billionth of a meter thick — “really super-thin stuff,” said Edward Hughes, the company’s CEO.

Aculon describes its chemical family as Self Assembled Monolayer of Phosphonates, or SAMP.

An electronics manufacturer can cover a circuit board with an Aculon product called NanoProof, prevent water from bridging the electrical connections on the board and prevent short-circuits. Applications of NanoProof can be 1 to 10 micrometers thick — that is, millionths of a meter — to be effective. For comparison, a human red blood cell is around 6-7 micrometers across.

“It’s kind of like nanoscale Teflon,” Hughes said, comparing NanoProof to the nonstick coating.

He demonstrated by bringing out two small pieces of stainless steel, which clinked on the table. He dripped water onto both. Droplets dissolved and ran down the surface of the untreated piece of steel. On the steel piece treated with an Aculon coating, the water drops formed little globes that rolled off the surface of the steel plate when tipped.

Prestigious Award

Earlier this year, NanoProof received an award from Circuits Assembly magazine, which recognizes notable new products for the year. It’s an award judged by peers in the industry, which gives it extra credibility, Hughes said.

The market for waterproofing printed circuit boards is more than $1 billion, Hughes said.

In 2014, the company received a similar award from Circuits Assembly and a second publisher for another product called NanoClear. Companies that produce printed circuit boards use NanoClear to keep the stencils used during the printing process clean.

There can be thousands of apertures, or holes, in such stencils, and those holes are getting smaller as companies introduce new generations of electronic products. When apertures get smaller, the solder paste used in printing is more likely to stick and clog the holes, defeating the printing process.

NanoClear has about an 80 percent market share of nanocoatings for stencils, Hughes said, adding that major companies such as Qualcomm Inc. and Samsung use NanoClear. “That’s been a big success for us.”

“We’re becoming known as guys who can help solve surface problems,” he said.

By now Aculon has received 21 patents, and seven more are pending. The business has licensed nine patents from Princeton University, where the company’s founders received their doctoral degrees. Eric

Bruner (who completed his undergraduate work at the University of California, San Diego) and Eric Hanson started the company, licensing technology they developed at Princeton. Hughes joined Aculon in 2008 to help the two commercialize their technology. Hughes is the largest of the company’s private investors.

The business does not disclose revenue and is profitable, Hughes said. Revenue grew 40 percent between 2014 and 2015. This year, growth will be “better than 40 percent,” Hughes said.

Aculon also sells coatings that repel (or attract) water or oils to companies that manufacture medical devices, apparel and watches. Its first market was the optical space. Oakley Inc. has used Aculon coatings to make its sunglasses water resistant.

Other Customers

There are also applications in the oil and gas industry, in wells and in storage. The market has been “pretty much a rocky road for the last 18 months,” Hughes said with a laugh, but it might be coming back.

Aculon has been building up an international distribution network. European customers have been enthusiastic about the product but cool toward the idea of being serviced out of California, Hughes said. They prefer vendors in their own time zones who speak their native languages — and they don’t want to deal with the logistics of shipping from the United States.

“They’re like, ‘Call us when you have somebody …,’” Hughes said. “You kind of learn these things as you go along.”

Overall, he said, business is good.

Company investors have been asked if they want to sell, but Hughes said the time is not right — at least not yet.

“We’ve got technology that the market’s coming to, as opposed to the other way around,” the CEO said.

Photo courtesy of Aculon Inc.

ACULON INC.

CEO: Edward Hughes

Revenue: Undisclosed

No. of local employees: 20

Investors: The investor group includes small funds, unnamed individuals and the executive team. CEO Edward Hughes is the largest investor

Headquarters: Sorrento Valley

Year founded: 2004

What makes the company innovative: Aculon produces patented specialty coatings that attract or repel water, oils or other substances

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