Cambrios was co-founded in 2002 by Angela Belcher, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Evelyn Hu, of U.C. Santa Barbara (now a professor at Harvard University). At first, the company pursued a model based on their research into how biological structures were formed - coating the DNA of a virus in order to attract inorganic material and then assemble something along its spine. That worked for the tiniest amounts of material, but as LeMoncheck points out, “reprogramming a virus and getting something to grow in a petri dish is great. Thinking how you might scale that to produce hundreds of liters is pretty daunting.”

There is a culture in Silicon Valley of “not being afraid to fail and not getting hung up that your first idea kind of sucked,” LeMoncheck observes. So when one of Cambrios’ researchers discovered that a University of Washington professor had a technique for creating nanowires through a chemical engineering process, they immediately recognized it was a more promising avenue for commercial production. They licensed the technology and that is what they use today.

“It is that dogged pursuit of the right answer and not having any ego about whether it is yours or not,” he says. “That is a great entrepreneurial environment in which to work.”

It took a decade for Cambrios to develop and test its processes for commercial manufacture, being careful to ensure that the quality it achieved in the lab was maintained as it scaled up production. As a startup with limited resources, it also sought to use as much off-the-shelf technology as it could in its factory.

Working with a very tiny product presented Cambrios’ materials scientists and product engineers with a host of technical challenges. The company has to synthesize the wires, LeMoncheck explains, in a way that makes them as thin as possible but also as long as possible. “It is very hard to grow things in one direction but not the other. That is part of the challenge,” he notes.

Additives must be added to the ink to ensure that the silver does not deteriorate over time. The tiny wires have a tendency to clump together so other chemicals are used to ensure that the wires touch each other but do not bunch up.

Today, Cambrios can produce enough ink in its 5,000-square-foot Sunnyvale factory to supply nearly 750 million smartphones. While that is a huge number, Cambrios is dealing in an extremely small product. It uses highly automated processes that require careful management. It can take three months or more to train employees on the company’s manufacturing processes.

“What we do is so different than your typical manufacturing environment that we know we will have to train people from ground zero in what we do,” says LeMoncheck, who quips, “It is not like I can go out there and poach some other silver nanowire manufacturing guy.”

He says the company instead looks for “raw horsepower” – people who are smart, motivated and fit the Cambrios team culture. The company cross-trains its workers so that it can rotate them and keep their assignments fresh.

Cambrios has a small workforce of 55 employees but more than 20 are Ph.Ds. LeMoncheck says he thinks of Cambrios as a “solutions company,” noting that it has a sizable part of its workforce in its applications support group.

“We have our own pilot-scale roll-to-roll coating machine. We can do patterning and lamination. We can attach the touch electronics. We can basically make an entire touch module in our shop,” he says. This allows Cambrios to help their customers and others in the supply chain with various technical challenges. “We solve this whole problem and then we monetize it by making and selling ink on the front end.”

While Cambrios licensed the original technology, that doesn’t mean the development effort stopped. LeMoncheck notes the company is on the fifth generation of nanowire processes. That rapid innovation is necessary to compete in such a fast-changing market. LeMoncheck recalls that when he joined the company, ITO-coated film was $45 a square meter. Three years later, it costs less than $20 per square meter. And he says, 27 companies are working on technology that is similar to what Cambrios produces.

“Not being afraid of failing, knowing you have to move fast and having great competitors will really keep you on your toes,” LeMoncheck says.

In this demanding environment, protection of intellectual property is a major advantage of operating in the U.S., LeMoncheck observes.

“Staying in a place that respects intellectual property like the U.S. is really good for us,” he states.