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From Assays to Hair Removal, Co. Plays Big and Small Roles

CEO: Steve Oldenburg

Revenue: About $3.5 million in 2015; $4 million in 2016

No. of local employees: More than 40

Investors: Employee owned; Oldenburg owns the majority stake

Headquarters: Kearny Mesa

Year founded: 2004

What makes the company innovative: The business is finding new ways to put nanoparticles to work in fields such as dermatology, embryology and lateral flow assays.

NanoComposix Inc. is growing on the strength of some very small products.

The business, which now has more than 40 employees, makes microscopic particles of various materials for bioscience and other uses. It expects $5 million in revenue this year, up from $4 million in 2016.

The company spent about $200,000 to add a cleanroom to its space in a Kearny Mesa business park, finishing the project early this year. The main reason for the addition is that nanoComposix is looking forward to producing microscopic silver particles for dermatological treatments with partner Sienna Biopharmaceuticals Inc. It’s targeting full production by the end of 2018.

Privately held nanoComposix is also involved in several research projects.

Along with a University of Minnesota professor, the San Diego business is investigating a “cryo-thawing” technique that might eventually prolong the survival of donor organs. At a very small scale, the technique might improve the viability of frozen embryos, including zebrafish embryos used for research in the life sciences.

Sienna’s IPO

Steve Oldenburg

Silver nanoparticles produced in nanoComposix’s new cleanroom may one day be part of an acne treatment and laser hair removal process that Sienna Biopharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: SNNA) plans to bring to market. Sienna, based near Los Angeles, closed its initial public offering Aug. 1.

Sienna’s approach to acne and hair removal uses plasmonic nanoparticles, rubbed into the surface of the skin with a pad. Once the particles are rubbed into the sebaceous glands or hair follicles, a technician will heat the area with a laser. The nanoparticles absorb that particular wavelength of laser light and heat up, injuring the tissue directly adjacent to them. While conventional laser hair removal techniques work best with dark hair, Sienna’s nanoparticle-based technique promises to get rid of light hair.

NanoComposix CEO Steve Oldenburg said he and Sienna representatives found the most effective materials for the job were silver particles 10 nanometers thick and around 70-80 nanometers in diameter, coated in glass to keep them stable. (A nanometer is 0.00000004 inch. Human hairs range between 60,000 and 100,000 nanometers thick).

NanoComposix also plans to use its cleanroom to produce nanoparticles used in lateral flow assays. The 40 nanometer gold in such tests, which include over-the-counter pregnancy tests, is “the most ubiquitous nanotechnology that nobody knows about,” Oldenburg said.

Such tests, by the way, are getting more sensitive. Instead of providing a yes-no result, lateral flow assays will soon be able to provide a range of values. People will need a smartphone to read them.

One such test is an inexpensive field test to see whether a tick carries Lyme disease. NanoComposix has a $1 million defense contract to perfect the test. And it is working on other tests that could gauge a person’s exposure to toxics.


Nanoparticles hold promise in another area of life science.

The process of freezing and thawing embryos is fairly well established. A scientist has to do both quickly, Oldenburg said. However, it can be tricky to thaw larger embryos without ruining them.

Nanoparticles could be the answer to get a structure to successfully come back from the deep freeze.

Working with University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor John Bischof, nanoComposix is looking into cryo-thawing structures by injecting them with nanoparticles. Once distributed uniformly, the particles would heat up when hit with a laser light or radio waves.

The partners are using a $225,000 grant from the National Institutes for Health to find a way to heat up frozen zebrafish embryos.

Though the project may seem odd, zebrafish embryos are “a very important model system in biology,” said Oldenburg. When scientists work to understand genetic pathways or molecular interactions, zebrafish are “a very common system for people to look at.”

One trouble with zebrafish embryos, however, is they are difficult to share. Their frozen embryos are too big to thaw easily and uniformly.

Scientists all over the world may be getting a way to send frozen embryos to their peers, knowing they have a reliable way to thaw them with nanoparticles.

In the longer term (and on a vastly larger scale), scientists might be able to use such a technique to preserve, ship and successfully thaw organs suitable for human transplants. Oldenburg said the mainstream media had a field day with that announcement, published March 1 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Bischof, a co-author of the paper, is associate director for the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine.

NanoComposix produces particles made from gold, silver, iron oxide, platinum, silica and other materials. The materials come in spheres, rods, cubes and other shapes. They have uses outside the life sciences, including defense contracting.

With its recent expansion, nanoComposix is now up to 12,000 square feet of space.


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