When describing the business plan of his biotech startup, Cambrios Technologies, Mike Knapp is accustomed to seeing raised eyebrows.
The firm's current research projects involve using microscopic viruses to create artificial proteins to manufacture electronic devices. Knapp concedes that might sound more like science fiction than modern lab technique.
It doesn't help impressions that Cambrios has raised close to $14 million in funding from a group of backers including the venture capital fund run by the CIA, In-Q-Tel. Or that popular fiction has dramatized genetically engineered viruses in frightening ways. In the novel Prey, by Michael Crichton, a company creates self-replicating microscopic machines bent on killing scientists trapped inside a lab.
"In general you put those three things together -- genetically engineered viruses that manipulate nanoparticles -- people are going to get a little bit concerned," Knapp said.
But first impressions can be misleading. Cambrios researchers are pursuing such tame-sounding commercial applications as liquid-crystal display screen manufacturing. The process uses innocuous bacteriophages, Knapp said, which are abundant in nature and widely used in lab research.
While the concept of applying viruses and proteins to develop electronics seems like a strange hybrid of organic and inorganic science, it's a methodology that's gaining traction in research labs. It's a logical approach, said Catherine Murphy, a chemistry professor at the University of South Carolina, because it relies on materials readily available in nature.
"You have all the bugs doing all the work for you," Murphy said. "You don't have to be intelligent yourself to design the organic material."
Cambrios is one of a handful of private and academic institutions employing viruses to create proteins that can be used in commercial applications. The Scripps Research Institute is another lab pursuing research using viruses as chemical building blocks for materials, pharmaceuticals and diagnostic agents.
Private companies on Knapp's radar screen taking a similar approach to developing molecular-scale technologies include Zettacore, which is examining ways to design and use molecules in modern electronic applications, and NanoMagnetics, which makes magnetic particles grown inside uniform hollow protein spheres 12 nanometers in diameter. The company says the technology has applications in water purification, data storage and medical imaging.
At Cambrios, research stems from the work of Angela Belcher, an MIT materials science professor and MacArthur fellow. Her research focuses on using structures found in nature to design novel hybrid organic-inorganic electronic and magnetic materials. Belcher, a co-founder of Cambrios, currently serves as one of the company's scientific advisers, along with Evelyn Hu, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Cambrios' headquarters are in a standard-issue office park in Mountain View, California. Its laboratory combines elements of semiconductor and biotechnology research. Plasma cleaners and profilometers share space with bacterial incubators.
Researchers begin this biological manufacturing process by assembling nucleic acids of a selected bacterium, Knapp said, and then essentially infecting them with a virus.
"When the virus infects the bacterium, the bacterium can't distinguish between its own genome and the viral genome, and it starts making the protein the virus is telling it to make," Knapp explained. The result is the production of novel proteins, some of which the company believes will have commercial uses.
None of the artificial proteins produced in Cambrios' labs is used in the electronics industry today, although the biotech industry already uses living cells to manufacture drugs. Knapp envisions myriad potential uses for proteins that can be shown to exhibit commercially desirable properties, such as the ability to bind to a specific metal or link certain materials together. The company envisions making money by selling artificial proteins and discovering the ways they interact with materials used in industry.
For now, the company's staff of 14 is supported principally by venture capital. In February, Cambrios closed a $12 million round of funding that included seven VC funds along with the CIA's In-Q-Tel. The near-term plan, Knapp said, is to have at least one product on the market by 2008.
"We're going to have to get very close to market before anybody can believe this is going to work," he said.
In addition to its venture-funded investigation, the company is also working on part of a broader project for the Army's Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, which is investigating using particles to develop sensor-enabled "smart threads" embedded in soldiers' uniforms, Knapp said.
Cambrios is working on another project at the behest of In-Q-Tel. But Knapp said he could not provide further details about it, save that it is "aimed at things relevant to the intelligence community."
written by Joanna Glasner