Founders Fund pumps $7M into super-resolution startup that could combat cancer

By Hamish McKenzie , written on December 13, 2013

From The News Desk

Matthew Putman has released two albums, authored a book of poems, produced off-Broadway plays, as well as a film, taught himself calculus by reading “Calculus for Dummies,” and survived cancer – twice.

Now, the polymath scientist and entrepreneur has $7 million in funding from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund for his startup Nanotronics Imaging, which makes a super-resolution desktop microscope and imaging software that can detect smaller-than-micron details in real-time. The technology may one day help prevent cancers from developing. Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and Palantir, as well as an early investor in Facebook, will join Putman and his father, John Putman, on the Nanotronics board. (Disclosure: Founders Fund is an investor in Pando.)

Nanotronics’ technology has potential applications in health, material design, and alternative energy, but so far it has been deployed exclusively in the semiconductor industry, where manufacturers have used it to detect minute flaws in chips at an early enough stage to drastically reduce failure rates. Putman hopes the technology will one day help spot pre-cancerous cell divisions almost instantly. For instance, Nanotronics is working with doctors at New York’s Jamaica Hospital to trial the technology to identify cell abnormalities in Pap tests.

The $7 million injection is a Series B round for Nanotronics, which had earlier raised $4 million from angel investors, including David Larkin, founder of GoWatchIt. The company will use the money to scale its operations, including hiring more staff in its offices in Brooklyn and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where Putman grew up. The company employs about 20 people, many of whom are engineer refugees from America’s dying rubber industry.

Putman, whom I profiled last year for Pando (that's him in the illustration above), developed the idea for Nanotronics while in a stoned daze. Couch-ridden and facing a grim diagnosis as a result of chemotherapy, he was self-medicating with marijuana cookies while working on his PhD dissertation in between watching episodes of “Star Trek.” Thinking he was about to die, he had determined to leave a mathematical blueprint in order to help advance the cause of nanotechnology. His belief is that “to build the future, you have to see it,” and so he worked on a model that would ultimately produce his super-resolution microscope.

After his recovery and completing his PhD, Putman set to work in building Nanotronics, but he had difficulty raising funding. After pitching to numerous venture capitalists in Silicon Valley without success, he had resigned himself to finding capital in other ways. “I’d given up on Silicon Valley,” he says today. A year later, however, he found some luck with Thiel, whom he knew through being a mentor for the Thiel Fellowship.

Putman is a trained jazz pianist who self-released an album called “Perennial” and contributed to “Gowanus Recordings.” He was also a producer on the film “The Definition of Insanity.” In 2011, he published a book of poetry called “Magnificent Chaos.” He blends his interest in the arts with an aptitude for science. As well as being an artist-in-residence at Imagine Science Films, he has taught courses at Columbia University about using polymers to create flexible electronics, bio-scaffolds, and solar panels.

Last year, Putman told me that he believes that just as his microscope can find a nano-size defect in a semiconductor wafer, it can also identify abnormalities in calls that could then be targeted for treatment before a tumor develops.

“I don’t want to deal with cancer,” Putman said. “I want to deal with pre-cancerous cell division. The way to do that is to image things that are small. If you can see something that’s very, very small, you can prevent it from becoming a tumor.”

That way, he figured, is preferable to the status quo, which entails poisoning people, cutting out parts of their body, and then shooting them with radioactive ions. And, having gone through that process twice, Matthew Putman is something of an authority on the subject.

[Illustration of Matthew Putman by Hallie Bateman]