In October last year, the executive chairman and majority owner of Izon Science, Hans van der Voorn, put his house up for sale to raise funds for his company.
"You've just got to back what you believe in," says van der Voorn.
The future is certainly looking very different from a year ago. Dunedin-based Izon has been busy hiring staff and finalising preparations for the launch of the first commercial version of its nanoparticle testing machine. Half a million dollars in public funding has helped, and Izon has also found private money to boost its finances.
What the machines do is measure, analyse and control nanoparticles - right down to a single particle - by passing them through a tiny pore in a membrane whose size can be precisely adjusted.
Beta versions of Izon's nanoparticle measurement machines have already been sold to research organisations in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Taiwan, Denmark, Britain and Belgium.
It hopes to sell at least 45 of the machines by the end of the year, and then quickly increase sales. At €4000 ($8808) to €5000 apiece, the machines are designed to be price-competitive against rivals. Izon also gets revenue from selling the consumable nanopores - the membrane with a pore it.
"By the end of our financial year [ending March 2010], Izon should be cashflow positive," says van der Voorn.
For many years, scientists have been in a race to find the next big application for nanoparticles, which can already be found in various types of coatings and sunblock, among other things. Van der Voorn had previously built a multimillion-dollar company, Nova Gas, before selling all his shares in 2006. In 2005 he spotted the technology created by a scientists trying to find a novel approach to measuring nanoparticles.
So convinced was he of its potential, he became the first investor in Australo (Izon's former identity). The scientists patented a technology for creating a "flexible hole" whose size is adjustable in real time, and which can be made cheaply and efficiently.
Izon now makes two versions of a nanoparticle measuring machine, the nanopores used in the measurement, and the software that runs the system. The membranes are made from the same patented material used by Dr Murray Broom in his world-famous foldable kayaks.
In future, the idea is to keep developing ways to control the size of the "hole", shrink the coffee grinder-sized machine into a cellphone-sized version, and include more automation in the system.
Izon's machines are aimed at researchers, who can use them to help probe the nature and potential uses of nanoparticles.
It is a kind of backdoor entry in the frantic race for nanotechnology success. Izon's machine can be applied to medical diagnostics, nanoparticle measurement, biomolecule analysis and environmental diagnostics, among others.
Van der Voorn is not a fan of venture capital funds, which he says tend to want to know their exit strategy from the time they invest. He prefers the private investor route, and has found one in Colin Harvey, who founded successful animal healthcare company Ancare.
Harvey, says van der Voorn, "understands our science and asks us the hard questions, and sets us milestones". Fantastic science doesn't always get small fry like New Zealand in the door of potential markets. Izon could not get an appointment with a university in the state of Georgia, which is a leading nanoparticle science researcher. It was only when Izon exhibited its technology at the 2009 BIO International Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, that van der Voorn was able to get an appointment to show his wares. "I have half an hour with them." That's how tough it is to get into the US, he says.
Izon has, however, made a lot of progress in terms of research relationships. These include supporting the endeavours of the National Centre for Biosecurity and Infectious Disease (NZ), Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (for its work on cancer).
Much of New Zealand's effort to commercialise science is still done by Crown research organisations, which van der Voorn believes is not necessarily the best model for success.
"How many of the project owners would mortgage their house?" he asks. Public sector employees also tend to be risk averse and have to report to endless committees, making them slow to react to market changes, he says.
"If only you can see what we are achieving with a little funding ... each dollar goes twice as far in our company." Izon has spent over $1.3 million on research and development over four years.
Izon was also forced to be very focused in what it wanted to do when it ran short of money. "That has made us a lot sharper and more responsive to the market," van der Voorn says.
He wants to show science can be applied successfully in the commercial sector and New Zealand companies can be big. And by big, he means a $1 billion company.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand HeraldReuse content