E45: Matthew Putman, Founder and CEO of Nanotronics – Interview

August 2, 2016


This interview on next generation imaging and testing is with Matthew Putman. Matthew is the founder and CEO of Nanotronics which has developed one of the most advanced and affordable microscopes in the world. Why does that matter? They inspect and detect issues on a nano level for semiconductors, microchips, hard drives, LEDs and other products. To automate this they use a combination of their nano microscope, robotics and computer vision.

Matthew is also on different boards and has been a mentor with the Thiel Foundation for five years.

I invited Matthew to share more about his background and the future of the microscope and how in the world do they see on a nano level, what do they see, why does it matter?

Here are other things we talk about:

-How did your creative, artistic background help you build Nanotronics?
-How did you start Nanotronics? Where did the tech come from, the idea? What do you inspect?
-What makes your tech so interesting to manufacturers? Can you increase throughput, reduce defects? Increase innovation?
-What are other potential applications for your technology?


David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs. This is Dave Kruse from Madison, Wisconsin and today our guest is Matthew Putman. And Matthew is the Founder and CEO of Nanotronics, which has developed one of the most advanced and affordable microscopes in the world. And why does that matter? Well, they inspect and detect issues on a nano level from semiconductors, microchips, hard drives, LEDs and other products. So that’s quite interesting what they can do. Matthew is also on different boards and has been a mentor with The Thiel Foundation for five years, which is pretty cool and then I’ll have to ask about that. So I invited Matthew to share more about his background and the future of microscopes and how in the world do they see on a nano level, what do they see and why does it matter. So Matthew, thanks for joining us today.

Matthew Putman: It’s great to be here, thanks.

David Kruse: So yes. So typically I would like to start out hearing about your background. So do you mind giving us sort of a little bit of an overview on how you got into Nanotronics. I mean you are a part of a number of Boards. So you know if there is one or two that are of other interests maybe you could share those as well.

Matthew Putman: Okay. Well, I grew up as a son of an Akron, Ohio entrepreneur. Sort of a lucky things and a good place to have grown up and so my father and even my grandmother before that really pushed transformative technology into what was already kind of an old industrial world of mobile production. Sounds not so high tech, but really was, software and…

David Kruse: What’s an example? What did they come up with or…

Matthew Putman: Right, so my father was 16 years old. He and his cousin and my grandmother started a research facility that they contact research for chemical polymers. It’s still around call the RDL. By the time I was growing up he had started a company called Tech Pro. Both my parents actually started this company and first it was in the early ’80. And Tech Pro’s main contribution was to put personal computers onto factory profit control tools. At the time it was all analog devices and mainframe computers, so bringing old factory testing equipment into the computer ago, the personal computer age from ways when you hear a bit more about Nanotronics, we are doing this again, but with the next generation of technologies which is artificial inelegance and some other computational things. So I grew up in this world. I was running day to day tests with the quality control test on my kitchen table when I was eight years old and they started this company.

David Kruse: Oh, that’s cool.

Matthew Putman: So doing constant control I called it the [inaudible] casing goes back my whole life. But I actually didn’t study as an undergrad. I didn’t study science or engineering. I actually was a music and theater nature. I moved to New York and directed plays and produced plays and played the piano unsuccessfully. But as I was producing and doing Nanotronics I realized that business is just businesses unless you are making something that’s creative and I wanted to have a creative contribution on the world. And what really interested me and what I found that I could do, that was in science. So it’s a bit of an intro to the family business, so I also went back to grad schools, got a PhD in Applied Physics. So I was lucky enough to be doing science about – in Academia, while being a leader in business, which went to studying Nanotronics.

David Kruse: Interesting. So did you start in Nanotronics? Was that 2007 that you started it?

Matthew Putman: You know that’s a more complicated question.

David Kruse: Okay.

Matthew Putman: I suppose and it was down. The previous company Tech Pro was acquired in 2008 and we really didn’t start Nanotronics as a real business. What we had actual people working for us and making something until around 2010, but the idea had been something that have been brewing and have been working on for really since 2000. So after having sold the company I was working in Macadamia and I really wanted to prove out of some of the ideas that I had had for all those years. So again we put the first money in starting Nanotronics and once that has proven out we actually started to raise money, grew as a company and started to sell to customers. Well, I guess our first customer was in 2011.

David Kruse: Okay. Got you, and I would like to hear more about how you kind of developed the tech for Nanotronics, but I was curious what the – I mean you have a very interesting background and it’s kind of unusual. I mean you got a PhD in Applied Physics, which is not easy, but you also have the artistic theater background like. Do you – yeah, I don’t know, do you think you see the world a little differently than some folks who just go straight technical science?

Matthew Putman: I’m sure that I see the world differently for good or for bad.

David Kruse: Good point, all right.

Matthew Putman: Most people have said it. But yes, I — to give you an idea, I am on the Board in a non-profit in Brookline called Pioneer Works and Pioneer Works is the best artist, we have a museum space. We got art residencies, we have music, studios, we do excellent music recordings, you know a publishing house, and I work out of this space at least half of the time even doing Nanotronics work, and they are doing Nanotronics work, but I find it incredibly important to have this kind of cross disciplinary inspiration. I think that I am a better business man, a better technologist, better scientist if I am also exploring that from the angle of art.

David Kruse: Interesting, I like that. So why do you think you are better? Have you thought about it?

Matthew Putman: I have thought about it, and it’s one of those things that you could speculate on why there are connections between music and physics and I tend to not do that. I tend to allow myself to be purely human in those moments and what comes of it, comes of it. Most of the work of a scientist is extremely analytical in trying to – you have to prove or disprove, you have to do the experiment and experiment is key. The nature is just pure exploration. I want to keep that as pure as possible, so long as they have some ideas of part of my brain that it activates while playing the piano. It doesn’t so much matter to me as long as it happens.

David Kruse: Interesting, okay. I like that. So let’s go back to you said you are going to get started with Nanotronics, kind of the technology development way back in 2000, and so I guess…

Matthew Putman: I started Nanotronics in 2010, 2011. I started thinking of the idea isn’t working, threw some of the ideas back then.

David Kruse: So maybe walk us – well first maybe if you could just describe Nanotronics to everyone that would be helpful and then kind of us walk us through starting the company, you know around 2010 how that all kind of transpired and that would be good..

Matthew Putman: Right so, I’ll start with your second question a little bit first, to give you an idea of where I come from and probably why we are doing this. I think I was think fortunate place to be both frustrated by industry and frustrated in academia and that went by a problem that I really wanted to see Nanotechnology become a reality. Another reason I wanted, you could test maybe it was a reality in certain ways, but it wasn’t a technological revaluation. When I talk about nanotechnology, what I need is to be able to built things at the molecular level and the ability to see those things, it’s incredibly importation. You can’t build something if you can’t visualize that thing. So if we built things from molecules precisely then it’s impossible to do that without bridging the gap between seeing things that are nanometer scale that go far beyond what light can see, you know visible light and then also to see very large things, with which are the things which we are making, which are urban. So looking at you know our Chief Revenue Officer, Justin who likes to call this with a Swiss army knife for inspection and one way you could think about it is that we can see classified, detect features, things from nanometer up to meters, which do a lot of things with those; that’s not the way things are normally done. So we after several years trying to blow it down to one sentence of what Nanotronics does, which by the way your audience who are raising money, for instance having a single cent to describe a complex company is still really important and I think, I think I came up with a world or may be Justin or somebody else in the company came up with it just a couple of months ago after all these years. To say that we combine complication super resolution, artificial intelligent and robotics to make the world’s most sophisticated microscope. Now even that, it was completely descriptive of what we do. Microscope, there are certain tendencies to think about what a microscope is, something you use in school, you look at through your eyes, that’s something that’s used in a very high tech lab. We are actually a – we are a factory tool. So it’s a very different sort of, I think it’s a very different way of thinking of microscopy.

David Kruse: Interesting, okay. Yes, there is a lot to that that once sentence to unpack.

Matthew Putman: Sure.

David Kruse: And so, before we jump into that sense, I was curious if you can give us an example of what’s a typical use case or a customary what do you do for them that somebody else couldn’t do?

Matthew Putman: Yes. If you think – I don’t know if you have even been in a semiconductor fab before. But a semiconductor fab is the cleanest place on the planet. You know space is cleaner, deep space is cleaner, but other than deep space, a semiconductor fab is the cleanest place on the planet. And to make is such, the most expense real-estate that you can have on. You can imagine every square foot requires an incredible amount of learning to build. So a semiconductor fab can cost $15 billion to $20 billion. And in these Fab’s, even though this is the most high tech things in the world being made, it’s made in kind of an assembly line process. So there are up to 300 layers in the process to make a semiconductor. And during that it goes from one station, the way it hurdles from one station to the next, which is inspected with different types of tools at each of those stations, now in a very long line until eventually its diced, created, made into chips and then its released sold, that’s the traditional way of doing things. What we want to do is actually reduce the footprint of the fab and we get away of this assembly line mentality and instead be a single bay where production issues can just feed and automate into our tool. So in a very small area we can do all of the types of inspection that required a lot of different types of extremely expensive instrumentation and also involved a lot of human inspection. And quite honestly, not the most fun job to work in a clean room atmosphere. So we provide automation that works 24 hours a day and takes up less space. So the real goal is to make semiconductor fabs less expenses, to have this information gathered in such a way that it provides for better yields and therefore can be that money that companies are saving in making can be put back into the company in order to do the research and have a faster iteration to design. So that’s one thing just in the semiconductor industry. And some of the extreme of that is I would say like wouldn’t it be exciting to think that the next great innovative company that comes out of the dorm room is into Facebook but is a semiconductor fab, so this is I think the end goal to something like this. But the technology physically apples to any type of production, whether it’s pharmaceutical or even going back to my roots, mixing nanoparticles into rubber.

David Kruse: Interesting, I like that vision of a college kid developing the next fab, that’s good, but. So what does your product – how does it do it and why does it do? Is it mainly for inspection purposes and it sounds like it does a whole lot because you are replacing a lot of functionality that’s already there. So how does it work?

Matthew Putman: Okay to the first one I could only say that inspection is a bigger thing than we tend to think of it just by hearing the word inspection. The goal was just to state whether something is good or bad, it works or doesn’t work. The goal is to be able to see as much as you can see in order to assign cognality to why something is doing something. So if along the process you can do that, you can fix problems, if there were defects or there were issues during the processing or you can iterate your design and make a design different in order to accommodate for that. So that’s a sort of feedback with, that makes it more than just inspection which the – I think the connotation comes to mind that this is good; I’m going to keep it, because of that I’m going to fail it. So that sort of another first thing I want to put out there.

David Kruse: That makes sense.

Matthew Putman: But just to go back to sort of the first sentence of what we do, competition supervising we’ve seen, artificial inelegance, robotics. So the simple resolution, I think of a sort of a way of tricking physics by using computation. I hate to say that, because you don’t exactly trick physics, there is no law physics we break. But from every pragmatic purpose we get around something called the ambilimit, which is the fraction limit of light, by using a combination of movement of light, of movement of objects, and by using some detection algorithms. By doing that, you are able to use something that is extremely common, that takes up large area which is white light. Just any white light you are used to with a microscope with LEDs and be able to revolve in the nanometer scale. That they call super resolution and it’s fairly unique. So we use AI, AI the leader, so we used to compute our algorithms that are based on the way the brain works. While I used, how this works for little searches, for Amazon recommendations already. What people aren’t used to with just working in the industrial energy and we could get deeper into AI if you’d like, but this all comes together through use of robotics in order to have precision, automation that allows our instrument to do things that humans alone just can’t do, we don’t have the dexterity for it.

David Kruse: Makes sense. So with the AI component are you essentially using it to you know visualize defects or whatever might be and then kind of have those end models continually learn and update based on if they are working on a chip or if they are working on LEDs or how do you use the AI.

Matthew Putman: Yes, by using AI we don’t just make users smarter, we make the machine smarter and you do that by having this set of initial parameters, say maybe I just want to look at things that are a certain size or a certain share, but it’s very simply defined and the algorithm will run and you know distinguish those based on that parameter, just do a path of it. And then the logic humans will start the training process. Do you go and use a number of visualization tools, you can go in and chose either a defect or a feature or a certain shape and call it something and once you’ve done that it goes into a library and you can – it keeps improving the probability that it will identify these correctly until you get to the point where it identifies them in a way that a human does. And then if you are putting enough training data from similar, similar type of data sets, those are officially called transfer learning, so that your AI actually can get pragmatically better than an individual human can.

David Kruse: Interesting. It makes sense and probably a lot faster.

Matthew Putman: I mean it’s a kind of faster, but humans could not beat, could not do it. I mean you can imagine looking at something that is – if you have a 300 millimeter wafer and you are looking at areas, you are looking at something, you know 8 million pixels and look at 20,000 of those over a single wafer and this is not even trumped, this is all of its magnitude beyond what humans can even comprehend in size of data. So it’s not that we – it’s even that we do it slow, but it’s actually impossible in the mind to do.

David Kruse: That makes sense. And can you give a quick overview of Nanotronics. If you have the scores and just like a number of employees or – you are located in Brooklyn, New York, I forgot to mention that, but yes, the importance of revenue or any of the stats.

Matthew Putman: Right, well some of it you know were a little bit private about, but I will give you a rough, I’ll give you some rough numbers. So we are actually located in three different places, I’m not our Brooklyn, New York let’s say, where we have a lot of our software engineers, pure vision experts and programmers for TNAI and also our executives. Where in Akron, Ohio which I told you a little bit about my background from Akron and we do, we have just this one called Solutions Architecture that people have worked directly with customers, applications. We have clinical service out of Akron and then we need to have our robotics, so they – which probably targets automation, just a company that we acquired last year, it was called Trican and that is in Hollister, California and so there is about 60 employees right roughly right now.

David Kruse: Nice, okay.

Matthew Putman: We have over 50 Nanotronics customers in that system. Those aren’t the one we inherited from the automation company, those are full and full instruments that we’ve sold and we have only started marketing efforts in August when our CRO came onboard. So we have to be growing really quickly now.

David Kruse: That’s impressive, because that’s from 2011.

Matthew Putman: Yes.

David Kruse: Yes, yes, that’s good and do you publically disclose like the cost of one of your typical machine – its typical cost and how big are these machines that you installed?

Matthew Putman: Yes so the price, the price to our customer varies depending on features of course. So our least expenses instrument, it doesn’t do all of the automation that we talked about in robotics, it’s about $55,000. Our typically semi conductor fab tool is around 200,000. So it’s that type of range. And the things about the deal when it starts, to your question about five; if you think of a normal inspection tool, you know its half of the room and its millions of dollars by the way, you know millions of dollars. So these prices are more expensive than an iPhone of course are not expensive for a fab. So and they sit on the table top. So it’s something that is like a microscope that you will get used to. So it’s a really different way envisioning what an inspection tool is.

David Kruse: And how – yes, that’s crazy I was expected much larger and more expensive.

Matthew Putman: And we’d like to make it smaller, I mean that’s the idea. If we are going to do a factory in a [inaudible].

David Kruse: And how many of these would a large microchip company or a factory would need.

Matthew Putman: You know hard to say. I mean it could be up to 100.

David Kruse: Okay, yes, makes sense. And who was your first customer?

Matthew Putman: So this is kind of a funny story, because I didn’t even know we were going to go into the semiconductor industry at all. I didn’t have a background on semiconductor. I was working on soft material polymer, nano fillers and one of our friend and first angel ambassador that came onboard had a friend out of Harvard who said he was really starting a little bit about us and this technology that we are working on and researching. He said I worked for this company that would love this. They make high energy efficient power devices and we visited them and they said that it’s just something that you could use your instrument partner. The instrument was so new. I mean it was really a research tool. And they said there’s just a couple of problems and why the industry hasn’t been able to deal with it. It’s completely transparent – now a little bit, maybe a little reflective. Now completely on a visual spectrum of being invisible and somehow we need to have a system that can focus on – that can focus on the backside, the middle and the top and distinguish up to 30 different type of crystaling defects. And this is something that these were, this is something that we are making really energy efficient through a high band gap material. Big instrument companies and industry leaders have ignored because of these challenges. So I said yes, we can do it and naturally we need to scale up and hire people and actually build the machine.

David Kruse: Interesting, interesting.

Matthew Putman: And since then you know that – since that they discussed the various parts and components and their suppliers and so they are trying to put from there and we became a semiconductor supplier. That’s the only reason we could have been in Bio Tech to start with, we could have been in any. This is who came up to us with a need that nobody else was addressing. So it was – I think we’re in an ideal place for us to be.

David Kruse: What other industries are you in now?

Matthew Putman: Well so, I listed more of our businesses in some type of electronics like that. But then we have our, we sort of outreached into others. So we sold instruments for infectious diseases, we sold them for cancer research, we…

David Kruse: How does it work – that’s interesting. How does it work in those area, sorry to interrupt.

Matthew Putman: Sure.

David Kruse: How does it work in the infectious disease? What did you do?

Matthew Putman: So, it’s so simply that a little bit of – it’s not simple to do, but it’s to say – viruses are extremely small and one of the big problems with drug delivery systems is being able to target those things that are small. So you have to see it, you have to be able to figure out the exact concentration of the drug delivery system versus the amount of material that makes up the drug that goes to the target and this is actually the same with a cancer delivery system that we have worked with, a researcher in the company. This just has to be fined tuned on the scale that hadn’t been possible [inaudible]. So this is something obviously for a betterment of humanity and for my staff and for everybody, this is something that I’d like to do more of. I need to force myself to stay focus on the industry that are taking up a lot of our time already, but I think eventually we will be doing much more of that type of work.

David Kruse: Interesting. So can you help almost with infectious disease to diagnose. I mean can you identify whatever virus it might be or I mean not you, but the researcher using your device?

Matthew Putman: Certainly the researcher using our device – my end goal would be that the computer, that the instruments have to do, that’s when we get back to AI, is that another place where human pathologist are – they are prone to all the other problems that we have as humans. They have the best intensions, they have really good instincts if we are trained, sometimes humans have very countable instincts, but we are good pathologist, have good instincts. We don’t have the ability to see enough and count enough and to this is – we like to augment the human in this case and be better. We don’t just want to provide a tool so that people can image things and I think that would be our goal moving forward in that area.

David Kruse: Interesting. Well, that’s fascinating. Never really expected that, but I mean it makes sense and sorry I interrupted you. You were talking about some other, any other industries you want to mention?

Matthew Putman: No it really – Nanotronics applies to everything. Some follow-up has to determine to flexible screens. I mean it really applies to everything and we have done a lot of testing in those areas. So a lot of it is not what I could imaging, but what other people can help you imagine, just help our team imaging can move into the next area, like I haven’t thought about compound, [inaudible] conducting materials. Like our first customer, our – I think our next great accomplishment will be something that I wouldn’t have taught of as well.

David Kruse: Interesting. It leads into my next question is, where do you want to take Nanotronics over the next three to five years and maybe the answer is you are not sure because you have amazing device and you got to be able to come up with ideas. But you said you wanted to make it smaller. Is there any other way?

Matthew Putman: Well, I think I’ve touched a little bit on these goals, but the goals are not so much just for Nanotronics. The goals are because of Nanotronics, the way the industry will look. So the less expensive factories to the pieces in these efficiencies, it can be rapid design iteration, there will be more automation. This will be to a type of abundance for the consumer that we don’t currently have and then I’m interested in working on new medical innovations and we have to have a business goal, really taking care of our customers and making sure that they have – that they think of us as a partner in order to make these big scary changes for them. And that all sounds super long term, but these are our goals for the next three years.

David Kruse: Interesting. And you just mentioned it and I wanted to go back to it, about reducing manufacturing costs and let’s take the example of affordable techs. How and maybe we don’t know enough about affordable tech manufacturing process to answer this, but I guess how would you reduce the cost for affordable tech? Is it because you can have that image on a nano level and then you have – when there is issues you have that feedback loop that can quickly diagnose and fix issues on the online or what…

Matthew Putman: Yes, that’s right. I hate to just say yes, but that’s exactly it. It’s being able to see it and to be able to quickly have feedback and fundamental takes is one field that they are working and batteries as well.

David Kruse: Okay, wow, all right, interesting. Well, we are getting near the end, but this is – what you have is even more interesting than I though. I though what you have is interesting, but now talking to you it’s even more interesting.

Matthew Putman: Great. Are you going to buy one by this of this conversation?

David Kruse: I kind of want to, I kind of want to, maybe I can get a discount there. I was going to ask about – so switching topics since we are near the end here, I was curious how you got involved in the Thiel Foundation two years ago?

Matthew Putman: Yes, well so I got involved with the Thiel Foundation before Peter Thiel was an investors. So that you know, Peter Thiel has a venture fund called Founders Fund that would put two of our funding rounds as series B and series C.

David Kruse: And how much did you raise approximately?

Matthew Putman: About $30 million.

David Kruse: Okay, that’s a good amount.

Matthew Putman: And so Peter Thiel, who was the Founder of PayPal and did so much in Facebook and so on is on our Board as well along with my father, so it’s my father, Peter and myself.

David Kruse: The three of you.

Matthew Putman: Yes, the three of us.

David Kruse: That’s pretty awesome. That’s fun.

Matthew Putman: So they – this was the. So before that I – being in these both – I was in the academic world, the theory and academic outsider, the Thiel Foundation seemed to appeal to me. This idea of finding sort of young brilliant people who don’t have the patients or the inclinations to go though the academics systems, but have things that are important and need to get out into the world. So I – everybody kind of – I forget who I initially met, but I know that I asked to involved with it and I don’t think I wasn’t particularly helpful mentor per say, but I did get to meet some of these kind of – we thought they were young talents and they do things for the Thiel, that does really important work.

David Kruse: Interesting and that leads right into one of my last questions as who has been some of your mentors and yes, over the – in your past who has helped you out?

Matthew Putman: Yes, so I think I was most lucky – I think suddenly I hear a lot of people talk about high school teachers that influence them and I was lucky to have this high school music teacher [inaudible] remained a friend through all these years. She, really the thing about Ellen there is that she got to meet the most possible. I wasn’t a great musician, I didn’t know the great operas. She made this assumption that I did and I could. I learnt an enormous amount from her.
By coincidence her husband, Ever Hard [ph] was a great physicist. So as I got to know them better through the many years, this was 20 years ago, this wasn’t 20 years ago, this was 30 years ago. But through all of these years – he passed away last year, they got to be great friends and great mentors to me, both scientifically, musically, also with. But my father was a great mentor to me. To me he is a much better engineer than I am. I’m not a good engineered at all, but he is incredibly intuitive and I learnt a great deal of stuff from him about both engineering and business, but I’ve had incredible mentors throughout my life.

David Kruse: Interesting, all right and so I got one more question and then unfortunately we should probably wrap it up I guess and so last question is kind of a full circle. I was curious, going back to your artistic days, what was one of your famous performances that you were involved with?

Matthew Putman: I was something that I, did I perform, did I perform in.

David Kruse: Or directed or was involved with in some capacity?

Matthew Putman: Yes, oh boy this is gonna look bad.

David Kruse: You can give more than one answer.

Matthew Putman: So do I – so if I go really far back, I did a musical theater production, it was a professional production even though I wasn’t a professional per say, I was only 16 -17 years old, a musical love story and the dancers were from a big ballet company and singer were Opera singers and I was cast in this anyway. And the chorography with them, there was chorographer Joe Marvin and I wasn’t a dancer, I wasn’t a great singer and it was the most challenging thing imaginable, to be able to do this chirography. And I had a great chirographer, just sort of kept me up every night to be able to do this and I would never be able to do repeat it again, but I was able to at that time. So it was really overcoming something that I was neither physically nor educationally prepared to do. So it was a huge influence on me. So I found these Jazz performances with a group of really extra free jazz musicians in New York that I think is incredibly rewarding for me. Just closing your eyes playing with great musicians and listening and reacting and so the two were entirely different thing. Both require a type of discipline that was completely different.

David Kruse: Interesting. Well thanks for sharing that. That was I think a good way to wrap it up. Yes, so…

Matthew Putman: I was never expecting to bring that up, I started dancing…

David Kruse: I sent you questions, but I did not put that on there, so that was a surprise. But that was interesting, that was really good. But now Matthew, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today. Well, what you’ve developed over the years is quite interesting and hope you guys do super well and continue to grow and…

Matthew Putman: Thank you. Thank you. Come visit in Brooklyn when you are town.

David Kruse: Oh! Yes, that would be great. As I said before we started, I love Brooklyn and New York City.

Matthew Putman: Great.

David Kruse: And thanks everyone for listening to another episode. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did and we’ll see you next time. Thanks again Matthew, I appreciate it.

Matthew Putman: Okay. Bye-bye.

David Kruse: Bye.