Vigorous year for plant microbes
Purveyors of microbes that boost plant health raised capital and launched products this year. Boston-based start-up Indigo attracted $100 million from investors. It is now selling a microbe-coated cotton seed that helps plants boost water use and yield under harsh conditions. Another start-up, Bioconsortia, raised $12 million to develop biofertilizers and biostimulants made up of communities of synergistic organisms. And agriculture giant Monsanto, working with partner Novozymes, introduced a fungal-based corn inoculant to help plants extract nutrients from the soil.
3-D printing went mainstream
Three-dimensional printing began as a tool for engineers and hobbyists, but this year it started to go mainstream. In July, GE began using 3-D printed fuel nozzles in some of its jet engines. Dental labs adopted laser printers to make metal replacement teeth. And start-up firm Carbon 3D launched a photochemistry-enabled printer designed to rapidly make industrial-grade 3-D parts. “We want to democratize manufacturing by lowering the cost of taking a new idea from conceptualization to realization,” said Raymond Weitekamp, CEO of PolySpectra, a Caltech spin-off that is developing polymers for 3-D printing.
EUV lithography became real
Extreme ultraviolet lithography, a technique that enables thinner circuit lines in computer chips, gained momentum in 2016 after years of delay. Tool manufacturers overcame technical challenges and launched scanners that can harness 13-nm EUV light to draw patterns of 10 nm or less. The biggest of them, the Dutch firm ASML, expected to ship four such scanners in 2016, each costing around $100 million. Meanwhile, chemical maker JSR and the Imec research consortium disclosed that they had made commercial batches of photoresists that can be used with the scanners. And the start-up Inpria raised $11 million to further its tin oxide-based EUV photoresists.
Synthetic biology advanced
Making genetically engineered organisms will be more like building with Legos and less like tweaking a hard-to-decipher recipe, thanks to synthetic biology start-ups, which had a big growth year. Scientists in Boston and the Bay Area are using automation, miniaturization, and computer learning to vastly speed up DNA and gene synthesis. The companies they founded—Gen9, Twist Bioscience, and Zymergen—attracted venture backing, customers, and key partners in 2016. Their custom-made DNA sequences will be used by organism builders at firms such as Amyris, Cargill, and Ginkgo Bioworks.
2-D materials hit the market
The development of functional 2-D materials took a big leap forward in 2016. Caltech, for example, developed a low-cost deposition process for making high-quality graphene sheets of about 1 m2. It is now working with an undisclosed semiconductor company to commercialize the technology. And the U.K. firm Thomas Swan became the first company to offer commercial volumes of 2-D boron nitride, which has good thermal conductivity but doesn’t conduct electricity. In the coming years, layers of different 2-D materials will be combined to create multifunctional products, said Thomas Swan executive Andy Goodwin.