Until Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Peter Schultz thought of a better way, materials discovery was a costly, slow, and laborious process. In the early 1990s Dr. Schultz and colleagues invented a super efficient materials research process that combined minaturizing with parallel processing. In 1994 the start-up company Symyx Technologies, Inc. licensed the invention and began developing research tools that can create and screen new materials hundreds to thousands of times faster than traditional methods at a fraction of the cost.
Combinatorial techniques had been successfully applied in the pharmaceutical industry to discover new drugs when Schultz and co-workers in the Molecular Design Institute of Berkeley Lab proposed that the same approach could be extended to materials science.
Scanning Mass Spectrometer Screening Wafer. This Symyx wafer, which holds 121 individual candidate catalysts, can be screened for catalyst performance in a few hours. The same number of experiments done by traditional methods could take a quarter of a year to complete.
When searching for a new material, scientists define its desired properties then decide which combinations of elements are most likely to yield those properties. Using automated devices to maximize speed, a library of 10,000 distinct materials can be placed onto a one square inch surface area. This library is subjected to varying environmental conditions and tests are employed to screen for specific chemical and physical properties.
The Berkeley Lab concept is a radical improvement on traditional materials development where compounds are created one at a time and painstakingly tested to search for desired qualities. Chemical catalysts, genomic probes, fuel cell components, and battery electrodes are just some of the materials that can be developed with this methodology.
Since 1994 when Symyx licensed the Berkeley Lab technology, the now profitable company has commercialized a polymer used for coating proteomics arrays and has identified dozens of new materials that are in development. In collaborative efforts with Dow Chemical, they have developed several new classes of catalysts to enable the production of novel high value plastics and reduce the cost of polymer manufacturing. Dow has already introduced two products that use catalysts discovered in these collaborations. Symyx has also entered into collaborative agreements with Merck &Co., Eli Lilly and Company, Exxonmobil Chemical Company, Rhodia S.A, Celanese, ICI, Unilever, Intermolecular, Inc., and others. The company now has approximately 350 employees – over 250 of those are scientific and technical staff. [Editor's note: as of 08/2009, Symyx has over 540 employees.]
In the Symyx licensing agreement, the Berkeley Lab Technology Transfer Department negotiated to accept company stock in lieu of part of the up-front licensing fee. The transaction allowed the start-up to devote more of its precious capital to developing the technology while still offering Berkeley Lab a fair return. The agreement with Symyx to accept partial payment in the form of equity was the first of its kind negotiated by any UC-managed lab and among the first by any DOE lab. Symyx went public in 1999 and is now listed on NASDAQ.