Hans van der Voorn, the executive chairman of Izon Science, jokes that the company “sells invisible holes”.
But if he is peddling snake oil, the joke will be on him. He has poured his entire personal fortune into the Christchurch-based nanotechnology instrument company, which just could be the next big thing.
LAB WORK: Izon Science executive chairman Hans van der Voorn and research manager Rebecca Warr, at rear, hope their company will benefit from growth in research in the field of nanotechnology.
The holes he speaks of are in plastic plates through which nanoparticles are fired, with Izon’s devices, the qViro and the qNanos, measuring the charge, volume and size of the particles.
While not directly involved in nanotechnology research, the firm hopes to benefit from growth in research in the field, which uses particles ranging from a single atom to the wavelength of light.
Mr van der Voorn and the rest of Izon’s 17 staff – nine of whom hold PhDs – believe they have created an instrument which measures the behaviour of nanoparticles better than any other device available in the world.
Already nanotechnology is being used in a range of fields to manipulate matter on a molecular scale, from creating new fabrics to improving the way drugs are administered.
Devices to measure nanoparticles have been around for about 30 years, but they are now becoming better and cheaper.
Izon sells its devices for about US$25,000 (NZ$32,800) each. Mr van der Voorn built his career in less abstract concepts than nanotechnology. An engineer who spent 15 years in the Wellington construction sector, he later founded Nova Gas, the retail supply company that was eventually sold to Todd Group, where it has annual turnover of more than $250 million.
As well as pumping in more than $2m of his own money into Izon – owning almost half of the company – it is through a network of contacts that the company has been funded, raising about $8m so far.
Aside from Mr van der Voorn, who has “bet the farm” on Izon, the financial backers are mainly wealthy business contacts built up over his career, including former Todd Energy boss Richard Tweedie.
The plans appear long term. Last year Mr van der Voorn said he would consider a $50m sell-off of the company as “a failure”. Izon even broke off funding talks with the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund because the conditions placed on it – including the ability to force a trade sale – were too onerous.
While this has put added pressure on the company’s funds, Mr van der Voorn now believes it is close to having the cash it needs to reach profitability.
About 90 of the devices have been sold worldwide, and Izon hopes to hit sales of 10 a month by March, a level at which it would reach financial breakeven and begin to generate profit for the first time. Though this has come at least a year later than the company expected, the market is vast, with Izon predicting there are at least 50,000 university laboratories that could take one.