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June 8, 2009 

 Q&A: Vice President Tom Levesque at NanoInk’s NanoFabrication Unit 6/8/2009
The mission of Going Global, which appears on MidwestBusiness.com on most Tuesdays, is to educate and inform Midwest technology companies on what local technology companies are doing internationally so other firms can learn from the successes of like-minded peers.

CHICAGO – Tom Levesque is a vice president at NanoInk’s NanoFabrication Systems Division. Levesque speaks with international expert Michael Muth about the company’s nanotechnology and the intricacies of taking the technology global. Listen to the interview here.


Michael Muth: Please briefly describe and give an example in layman’s terms of your nanotechnology.
Tom Levesque: NanoInk was formed to commercialize technology that came out of Northwestern in 2002 called Dip Pen Nanolithography or DPN. It uses a sharp tip (with a radius of 20 nanometers) that is used in an atomic force microscope to write or transfer different materials onto various substrates and create nanoscale structures of a variety of materials.

We do this in parallel with many atomic force microscope (AFM) tips. We’re working with stem cells and you can create scaffolds and do tissue engineering, create protein arrays and screen chemicals.

Global Marketing Channel

MM: What’s the role of a distributor in your marketing and sales channel?
TL: We expect them to provide front-line service for our equipment and technical sales expertise in selling that equipment. They’re not like automobile distributors that stock products and guarantee orders. They’re more like sales agents in the way they behave. They do installations and some service.

MM commentary: The line between manufacturers and distributors or agents is becoming more blurred all the time.

MM: What’s the difference between your equipment and its consumables?
TL: We sell ongoing consumables (i.e. the tips). While they’re very small, there is an aftermarket for our products.

MM: How were you able to resolve channel conflicts when responsibilities changed?
TL: Some distributors can have competitive products. Sometimes they have to make a choice. One chose the other product. We had to replace him. Sometimes they also sell atomic force microscopes. Sometimes ours might not be compatible with theirs. We’ve been able to resolve it by having different sales forces.

MM commentary: I’ve got to believe someone is still left disappointed.

MM: Can you imagine changing this channel structure in the future?
TL: One of our new products is focused on stem cells, which is very hot now in certain parts of the world. We could be large enough to justify more direct involvement.

Singapore comes to mind as well as Europe. We are putting more direct people in Europe to work with distributors there not to replace them but to strengthen our distribution. We’re not in a position to replace 30 offices. We can improve our distributor capabilities.

MM commentary: Making these changes can often be expensive.


MM: Duncan Graham of the University of Strathclyde appears to be the only scientific advisory board member based outside Chicago. Why aren’t there more?
TL: Our scientific advisory board was focused on the origin of the technology. We had one from Seoul National University in Korea. He, though, was originally from Northwestern. We try to keep the scientific advisory board focused on the leading edge. We formed a business unit to work with stem cells and spectroscopy. He was involved in both.

Specific Issues

MM: To what do you attribute your international success?
TL: We have some very unique and new enabling technologies that can be done almost no other way. Our equipment allows them to do this without a fab or a $1 billion football field-sized building. It’s more than $100,000 for our desktop application.

There’s a demand and it’s universal. Our customers are split between North America and the rest of the world. It’s not mainstream lithography. That’s still dominated by universities with clean rooms for millions of dollars. Having good distribution has helped us.

It’s ultimately the customer demand and need that has led us to those locations where dollars have been spent in nanolithography. Even if we go on site to provide training, our distributors are on site with us providing that interface (and not just in English). We get a lot of cultural education from our distributors.

MM commentary: For such a new company, 50 percent of sales outside North America is quite an achievement.

MM: What obstacles do you run into with nanotechnology and stem cells in different countries?
TL: It doesn’t matter if we work with adult or embryonic stem cells. We made the decision to work with adult and not embryonic. We bypass the ethical issue of embryos being destroyed. When we talk with the general population, we have to do some general education of sensationalism from Michael Creighton (the author of “The Andromeda Strain”).

People who know nanotech know it’s not completely without danger. Nanotechnologies have been around forever. We’re just now learning how to manipulate them. Carbon nanotubes are just soot and that has been around a long time.

International Marketing

MM: Americans are the world’s biggest brand evangelists. How will you be marketing NanoGuardian globally?
TL: NanoGuardian has been marketed to protect items of high value. We have to be careful what we disclose. If you expose the way you do things, you expose how to circumvent it. You’re selling a mysterious solution without giving anything away. You’re trying to sell it to very analytical people.

We currently have a small team based here without distribution. A lot of the work is with global pharmaceutical companies. If anything is worth something, people will steal it (and not just branded things). Aircraft parts are an example. There are a lot of counterfeit aircraft parts being used today.

It’s more determined by the value of the part, its rate of usage and its dollar value or unit cost. If a pill costs a dollar and you can protect it for a penny, that’s a good business decision.

MM: Why was NanoInk named in 2008 with the heavy hitters in World Trade Magazine’s Fabulous 50?
TL: A lot of the NanoInk’s technologies (especially NanoGuardian) are truly innovative and can be used to secure large markets worth billions of dollars. The public safety aspect has played a role, too. The number of people killed by bad drugs is enormous.

MM commentary: This was quite a PR coup. NanoInk is named with some of the world’s top firms.


MM: How much have you studied international business?
TL: I’m educated by the school of hard knocks. I’m a biologist by training and have been a sales guy for 32 years. I am often accompanied by someone on the ground. I’ve done some pioneering things like used U.S. government programs to look at potential distributors.

MM: How does language or culture affect your business?
TL: By being technical, we get a pass on a lot of that stuff. All of our contracts are in English. I haven’t done a lot of translations of specifications or other documentation. A large distributor like ours in Japan might make our materials available in their language. If I need a foreign-language speaker, I can run up and down the halls and find people who speak Korean, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Chinese, German or French.

MM: Anything else?
TL: We have an internal directive to rise to the challenge of trying to move into a leading role. Nanotechnologies offer so many technical answers internationally to the problems of the world. I hope we can provide some answers to some of these world problems. Green technology, clean water and health care can all be enabled by nanotech.

In the U.S., there are 20,000 to 30,000 nanotechnologists who went through level-one research universities with advanced degrees. If we are going to be successful, we need 2 million more and need to train these people. We established the NanoProfessor and a curriculum. We are working on the training of a work force. I don’t think India and China are any further ahead.

We’ve conferred a lot of degrees and sent them back to their home countries. That’s a bit of a travesty. We’re promoting other countries by training them in our first-rate universities and then sending them back.

MM commentary: International education is an entirely other issue.

Michael Muth is managing director of GATA, an international business development consultancy that helps technology companies build international partnerships. He can be reached at muth@midwestbusiness.com.
Click here for Muth’s full biography.

Previous Columns in 2007:
Misperceptions About Expanding, Exporting Technology Products Worldwide (5/26/2009)
Q&A: ‘Get Ahead By Going Abroad’ Author C. Perry Yeatman on Working Abroad (5/12/2009)
Q&A: Changes From Siemens, Toshiba Amid Today’s Economic Recession (4/27/2009)
Q&A: Lih Tah Wong of Computer Mail Services on E-Mail Filtering, Blacklisting (4/13/2009)
Q&A: World Trade Center Illinois Chairman Neil F. Hartigan, Director Bilal Ozer (3/3/2009)
Recession: International Causes, Effects of Today’s Global Financial Crisis (1/19/2009)
Q&A: Ex-Chicago Tribune, ‘Caught in the Middle’ Writer Richard Longworth (1/5/2009)
Q&A: Midwest Regional Director Michael E. Howard of Export-Import Bank (6/17/2008)
Q&A: Intetics Managing Partner Alex Golod on Belarusian Economy (4/15/2008)
Q&A: Intetics Managing Partner Alex Golod on Protecting Intellectual Property (4/9/2008)
Q&A: Intetics Partner Alex Golod on Being a Jack of All Trades (3/31/2008)
Q&A: Motorola WiMAX Director Tom Mitoraj on Unstoppable Freight Train (11/26/2007)
Q&A: Motorola WiMAX Director Tom Mitoraj on Global WiMAX Differences (11/20/2007)
Q&A: Motorola WiMAX Director Tom Mitoraj on Widespread WiMAX Growth (11/12/2007)
Q&A: InterPro Translation CEO Ralph Strozza on Translation Tools, Costs (9/18/2007)
Q&A: InterPro Translation CEO Ralph Strozza on Globalization, Translation (9/11/2007)
Q&A: InterPro Translation CEO Ralph Strozza on Intercultural Translation Issues (8/7/2007)
Q&A: Madison Capital Partners CEO Larry W. Gies on Specific Country Issues (7/10/2007)
Q&A: Madison Capital Partners CEO Larry W. Gies Jr. on Cultural Differences (6/26/2007)
Q&A: Madison Capital Partners CEO Larry Gies on International Private Equity (6/11/2007)
Q&A: Scott H. Lang of S.H. Lang & Co. in Chicago on Foreign Deal Making (5/15/2007)
Q&A: Scott H. Lang of S.H. Lang & Co. in Chicago on Middle-Market M&A (5/8/2007)
Q&A: Scott H. Lang of S.H. Lang & Co. in Chicago on Middle-Market Firms (4/24/2007)
Q&A: George Filley of NAVTEQ in Chicago on Data Localization, Reach (3/27/2007)
Q&A: George Filley of NAVTEQ in Chicago on Partners, Personal Privacy (3/20/2007)
Q&A: George Filley of NAVTEQ in Chicago on Digital Mapping (3/7/2007)
Click for 2006 column archive.
Click for 2005 column archive.
Click for 2004 column archive.

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