POWDER POWER: Jim Von Ehr examines a vial of his company’s NanoSolve, an impressive additive to composite materials. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

The Nano Revolution

When Richardson’s Jim Von Ehr sold his desktop-publishing company, Altsys, he had more money than he needed. He said no to retirement and founded Zyvex, a nanotechnology company determined to do what some think can’t be done: make materials one atom at a time.

January 24, 1995, was a handsome payday for Jim Von Ehr. That was the day Macromedia completed its acquisition of Altsys, the highly successful Richardson-based desktop publishing company Von Ehr founded in 1984. When the deal was announced, the purchase price was estimated at $69 million. But Von Ehr sold for stock, and the final figure was more than $100 million—“More money than I ever thought I’d have,” he says.

As Von Ehr signed document after document making the sale official, he allowed his mind to wander and contemplate, “What next?” Von Ehr was still young—he’s 56 today—and would never have to work again if he didn’t want to. But if he didn’t work, what would he do? He likes to travel and see other cultures. He could do that for a while. Maybe he could do a little scuba diving. He could buy a ranch and “do nothing all day,” he says. “Or punch cows. Whatever it is you do on ranches.”

But Von Ehr, an introspective sort, knew he’d be bored before he got off the plane, stepped foot in the ocean, or laid out his first unsuspecting bovine target. “I considered retirement for about two seconds,” he says.

Instead, he’s putting in 10-hour days at Zyvex, a nanotechnology company he founded less than a decade ago. (He’s slacked off recently, allowing himself to enjoy his evenings and most of his weekends.) Von Ehr has put millions of his own dollars into the company’s operation, and he’s not afraid to put in millions more. Because Von Ehr has a vision of the future of manufacturing. He sees machines getting increasingly smaller and materials amazingly pure. He thinks mankind can control chemistry at the molecular level, and he’s willing to spend money to make nanotechnology and atomically precise manufacturing a reality, prove its critics wrong, and do nothing less than set in motion the next Industrial Revolution.

Understandably, scientific breakthroughs and the betterment of mankind are not easy or cheap. The path of progress in nanotechnology is not a linear one, not like it was with Altsys. With software, programmers worth their laptops can develop prototypes with relative ease, and Von Ehr is a better programmer than most.

“At Altsys, I could sit down at 5 o’clock on Friday night, tell my wife I wasn’t coming home, program all night, and by 9 or 10 the next morning, I’d have a new feature,” he says. That’s how he came up with FreeHand, the popular application for vector graphics that sweetened the deal for Macromedia. He didn’t know what he was going to do at 3 in the afternoon on one day, and he had a version of a multi-million-dollar feature before lunch the next. “In nanotechnology, you order equipment and it’s six months before you even get it.”

Since he founded Zyvex in 1997, Von Ehr has ordered a lot of equipment. So too have the scientists who work for him. Zyvex has 65 employees, with more than a dozen PhDs among them. Von Ehr has learned much about nanotechnology, and he’s learned expensive lessons about running a company.

He firmly believes it will all be worth it in the end.

“Sometimes I think I must be the least persuasive person in the world,” Von Ehr says. “Because the idea is so big and so close, and I can’t explain it in a way that people jump aboard and say, ‘Yes, let’s do this together.’”

Von Ehr cuts a figure that is less than imposing. He stands compact at under six feet tall. His salt-and-pepper beard complements his head of mostly salt hair. His eyes are wide-set and his lips are full. He looks like a fitter version of home renovation expert Bob Villa.

If the messenger doesn’t fill a room, the message certainly should. The idea is big, but the scale of its application is so tiny you need an expensive device called a scanning tunneling microscope to see it. Nanotechnology deals in the nanometer, a mind-bogglingly small scope. To compare, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide. Using a series of millions of things called nanoprobes, scientists hope to shape molecules and build materials one atom at a time. Such atomically precise construction leads to lighter, stronger, purer products. Nanotechnology could revolutionize medicine, manufacturing, computing, and more. The science behind it is still burgeoning and its potential uses are infinite.

No wonder, then, that nanotechnology’s possibilities caught the attention of Von Ehr when he heard the influential author Dr. K. Eric Drexler speak on the matter at the Infomart in 1993. Drexler was the featured guest at a black-tie event, where 500 business and technology leaders gathered to see him receive the Kilby Young Innovator Award, named for Jack St. Clair Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit. Drexler, author of Nanosystems, described a theoretical machine that consisted of millions of tiny machines working in concert to build on the atomic scale.

“His speech seemed fantastic and far out and science fiction-y,” Von Ehr says. “I thought, ‘If this is true, it’s pretty cool.’”

As a computer software designer, the notion resonated with Von Ehr. The concept may have been far out, but to a computer software designer such as him, the real-world applications were obvious. At Altsys, Von Ehr could have an idea, move his fingers on a keyboard, and turn that idea into money by manipulating pixels. With an atomically precise machine, he would be able to do the same thing, only manipulating atoms instead of bits and pixels. Bits and pixels are virtual, Von Ehr points out. Atoms are real—and integral to absolutely everything.

After ruling out retirement, Von Ehr decided to become a venture capitalist and fund a major nanotech company. The only problem was, he couldn’t find one that suited his needs. No one was interested in pursuing Drexler’s idea of programmable nanotechnology. In fact, “not interested” is an understatement. At more than one university Von Ehr visited, professors laughed in his face. Others refused to meet him because they thought he was crazy. Nanotechnology, as it turns out, has no shortage of naysayers.

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