Prof. Han Athalin, the founder and CEO
Quantum dots (QDs), the tiny semiconductor particles, are expanding the horizon of possibilities in nanotechnology. Measuring sub-nanometer up-to 10 nm (1nm is one to one billionth of a meter), they are made up of 10-50 atoms. Due to their small size, QDs exhibit quantum confinement properties where the electrons occupy one of the two bands of the particle—valance band (VB) and conduction band (CV). By providing stimuli, the electrons move from VB to CB, creating a positively charged hole, making QDs behave like a semi-conductor. Besides, the movement of electrons between these bands changes the QDs’ ability to absorb and emit energy, making them behave almost like an atom— the reason why they are referred to as ‘artificial atoms.’ The presence of the band structures in these particles help to control their optical, electronic, and magnetic properties, just by varying the size and shape of them. Because of this capability, QDs can be integrated to fit the needs of a wide-ranging number of applications in such areas as electronics, photonics, bioengineering, medical diagnostics, information storage, medicine, and others. The global quantum dot market size is expected to grow from $3.5 bn in 2020 to $10.6 bn by 2025, at a CAGR of 24.6 as per a report by ResearchAndMarkets.com.
"Our business partners and customers usually have limited innovation capacities. That’s why they call on us: Attonuclei brings an additional innovation step to their products making them more competitive"
Nevertheless, tapping the promise of QDs is limited due to the risks associated with them. Some constituents of these particles issued heavy metals elements such as cadmium, a well-established human toxicant and carcinogen, show adverse effects on the environment and human health. Attonuclei, an R&D centre with a decade of experience in QDs and engineered nanomaterials overcomes this challenge by functionalising non-heavy metals-based QDs to ensure that they are “biocompatible” with human tissues and non-toxic for human health, chemically stable over time and that they are not released in the external environment. The company creates a functional link with QDs environment, enabling integration at the atomic level into the matter. These particles remain chemically grafted to materials, and they are lifetime stable without needing to be stored in the cold as compared to competitors’ products.
Furthermore, Attonuclei’s QDs can be molecularly integrated into a volume or on a surface based on atomic affinity instead of merely being ‘stuck’ on a surface. “Thus, there is no risk that they would be released into the external environment and independent testing laboratories show they are safe for human health,” remarks Prof. Han Athalin, the founder and CEO of Attonuclei. “As a result, our products can be used both in electronic and medical including material sectors and are validated in hospital and industrial settings,” he adds.
Attonuclei’s know-how consists of customising and integrating safe, functionalised QDs for industrial process. The company leverages its expertise in band-gap engineering to build ‘custom QDs’ and ‘functionalise’ them with different electronic and electromagnetic properties by tuning their size and composition, as per the application requirements. Besides, to enhance the properties of QDs, Attonuclei adds other raw material to their semiconductor core.
Attonuclei uses a unique ‘bottom-up’ approach to produce functionalised custom QDs at industrial scale, to serve different industries. “We are the only company that leverages bottom-up approach in this space,” states Prof. Athalin. While the top-down approach ‘miniaturises current technologies,’ the bottom-up approach helps build ever-more-complex molecular particles atom by atom. The top-down approach is suitable for producing additive nanoparticles with long-range order and for making macroscopic connections, but it cannot be used for QDs synthesis. Moreover, the top-down approach doesn’t allow getting monodispersed and stable nanoparticles. This approach is not suitable for repeatable production and shows limited potential for new creations.
On the other hand, the bottom-up approach is based on colloidal chemical techniques that have been developed for assembling small groups of atoms or molecules at the nanometer and sub-nanometer scale by the angstrom precision. As a result, this is the best way of producing new defectless structures with more homogenous chemical composition and better short- and long-range ordering.
“Inspiration for bottom-up approaches, or self-assembly, comes from biological systems, where nature has harnessed chemical forces to create essentially all the structures needed by life,” says Prof. Athalin. Thus, producing QDs by bottom-up approach opens the gate to a new scientific field that Attonuclei wants to explore to support customers develop new products in the areas of nanobiotechnologies, nanoelectronics, and nanomaterials.
We are the only company that leverages bottom-up approach in this space
QDs produced by the Attonuclei help the clients to ‘upgrade’ their existing products into new high-end innovative products, with added innovative properties and new features (i.e. adding new physical, chemical, biological and mechanical properties) without altering their structure or main characteristics. “This particular know-how offers them the opportunity to create a technological gap with their competitors,” opines Prof. Athalin. “Our business partners and customers usually have limited innovation capacities. That’s why they call on us: Attonuclei brings an additional innovation step to their products making them more competitive and innovative,” he declares.
SUccESS nanobiotechnological dressing
An instance of the company’s QDs used in antioxidant products in the cosmetics industry explains the particles capability in enhancing product performances. The existing products that are available in the market tend to oxidise spontaneously, losing their antioxidant activity upon first use. Therefore, Attonuclei covalently vectorised amino acids on quantum dots surface, leading to a rapid and perpetual exchange of radicals, allowing an almost infinite regeneration of an antioxidant compound in the cosmetic products that prevents the oxidation process. “Attonuclei is the first company in the world to achieve the synthesis of biological antioxidant functionalised QDs with self-regeneration properties, continuous activity, and complete efficiency in daylight,” claims Prof. Athalin.
Attonuclei, amidst the Coronavirus outbreak that has crippled the world, has developed a product for the detection of SARS-Cov-2 by leveraging its QDs. While the currently used reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing method does not provide complete reliability and shows false positives, Attonuclei’s product can diagnose the virus with an efficiency close to 100 per cent. It can even detect the virus on asymptomatic patients. Prof. Athalin states, “Attonuclei is the only independent research and development laboratory in the EU to develop its SARS-CoV-2 fast response diagnostic test, without the need to purchase active material. We plan to market on a small scale (ongoing pre-negotiations with Ministry of Armed Forces) started in October 2020.”
Attonuclei’s Unique Contribution to Nanobiotechnology
The bottom-up approach of the company’s functionalised custom QDs synthesis that mimic biological systems widely finds use in biological applications. One year ago, Attonuclei joined the SUccESS (Synergy for a Universal Skin Substitute) consortium together with the Nantes University Hospital (France), to produce the first nanobiotechnological device for skin regeneration (regenerative dressing) notably for victims of third-degree burns. The creation of such a consortium made it possible to bring together quantic biochemistry and medical worlds for a public health problem. In July 2019, the whole SUccESS project was funded with about US$ 24 million after a drastic international selection where scientific quality and potential for medical and economic benefits were evaluated.
To understand how this dressing works, let’s focus on what happens in a clinical case. Briefly, when a person’s skin is burnt, the epidermis, i.e. the first line of the body’s defense system is destroyed, making him extremely vulnerable to external pathogens. The current therapeutic strategy for such an injury is to restore the skin barrier quickly, to avoid potential infections and scars formation, and finally, to limit the pain the patient is experiencing.
Today, there are different types of dressings and grafting techniques to cure burns, but none can simultaneously address these different points. Thanks to its expertise in the bottom-up approach, Attonuclei issued an innovative medical matrix supporting the skin regeneration process. Two types of the company’s QDs were conjugated to the matrix to confer anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and healing properties.
Simultaneously, matrix colour is modulated by the pH making any infections and necrosis visually detectable and after that, paves the way for telemedicine monitoring. In this way, Attonuclei leverages photonic (optic) characteristics of its QDs. In another way, the company leverages QDs’ semiconductor characteristic of electron regulator that makes them anti-inflammatory, so helpful in burn treatments.
Dressing structure forms a polymeric alveolated 3D network, with interesting, absorbing properties, in which various biological compounds such as growth factors are integrated (from Nantes University Hospital research team). It improves wound healing by stimulating burnt skin stem cells and increasing the expression of different stages of biological markers (example proliferation, differentiation and cell migration/adhesion). “For Attonuclei, this project opens the way for artificial skin R&D,” he reckons.
Speaking more on nanobiotechnology, Prof. Athalin explains that according to American Nobel Prize, Pr. Richard Smalley, nanobiotechnologies induce an increasing number of interconnections and interactions between various biological materials coming from different species and human-made materials. This opens the way to the development of new living structures and forms, able to improve human species’ capacities or to solve health issues. “Now, when physics, quantic biochemistry and magic-sized QDs (under 1 nm diameter) technology converge with nanobiotechnology and medicine, opportunities for our species become quasi-infinite,” he adds. For instance, Attonuclei can apply its QDs technology to vision to develop an ‘upgraded’ eye capable of perceiving all wavelengths within the visible spectrum. More precisely, its piezo controlled pinpoint printer can organise QDs to mimic a human fovea, a central pit composing human eyes. When QDs absorb photons from incoming light, they produce electrons in return, and the consequent electric signal is sent to the brain via optic nerve, enabling vision. In another case, the company developed a QDs based technology that offers a new way to diagnose diabetes by using nanometer-scale printed FET (Field-Effect Transistor) circuit for detecting electrical blood conductivity. “So basically, when you are creative and scientifically qualified, technological potentialities become very exciting, and this is why Attonuclei has been founded,” observes Prof. Athalin.
The Company with a Difference – The Values it Brings to the Table
Established in 2010 with a workspace of 6m2 and a capital of US $12,000, Attonuclei now operates on a workspace of 1000m2 and a paid capital of US $4.5 million. This indicates the company’s sustained growth. “There are no external investors, banks or shareholders invested in Attonuclei which means that, we are the only deciders to orient which areas merit investments, which clients are relevant for us, and other aspects. We are a debt-free fully independent, self-financed company,” states Prof. Athalin. In coming years, Attonuclei wants to implant a subsidiary in the US to allow its activities to continue to grow to their full potential. In the first quarter of 2020, an official audit performed by one of the Big 4 audit firm placed Attonuclei value to almost US $125 million, just for the only biotechnology sector.
Teamwork is an essential value for Attonuclei. The company boasts of highly qualified scientists with well-established competencies in different fields such as quantum dots technology, biology, polymer chemistry, analytical chemistry, and computational chemistry. It also breaks down gender stereotypes by employing women in upper-level designations, which is still elusive in many companies. Based on its unique competences in high-quality functionalised custom QDs production and thanks to its highly-qualified team members and collaborators under Prof. Athalin’s direction, Attonuclei looks forward to continuing to run turn-key innovative R&D projects including “magic-sized” quantum dots production for nanoelectronics technologies (used for quantum dots cryptography) and space mission nanomaterials production including deep ultraviolet (UVC) – infrared resistant flexible tissues and X-Ray resistant “aerogel”.
The company’s number-one priority is to provide huge-impact solutions and services to its customers and collaborators, creating technological breakdown and a concurrent gap with its competitors. Prof. Athalin himself is an accomplished researcher with varied expertise, including the highest level of European diplomas, with French “Habilitation à diriger des recherches” (HDR; ability to supervise Ph.D.) that empowers him to guide the team with adequate research strategy for a specific field. Today, most of the companies in different marketplaces are managed by people with business, finance or marketing backgrounds, at Attonuclei, its Prof. Athalin, the reason why the company’s conception and approach is different from its competitors.