By Paul Menser
It’s a long way from the Snake River to Motor City, but NanoSteel, a company with its roots in Idaho National Laboratory and its R&D department still in Idaho Falls, announced Feb. 13 it has closed on a new round of equity investment led by GM Ventures.
Proceeds from the investment round will be used for the commercialization of NanoSteel’s advanced high strength steel (AHSS) for automotive applications. The financing includes new investments from Lear Corp., a leading automotive seating systems and electrical systems supplier, and SPDG, the leading car importer in Belgium and owner of Belron, the global leader in vehicle glass repair and replacement.
NanoSteel’s corporate headquarters are in Providence, R.I., but the company spun out of INL in 2002. It was founded by Dan Branagan, an INL researcher who led a team in the mid-1990s in the development of Super Hard Steel. When he left the INL, Branagan, now NanoSteel’s chief technical officer, took processes and patents he developed at the lab and spun them out for licensing to industry. The company’s products are used in oil and gas, mining, power generation, and cement and concrete, and it develops metal powders for 3D printers. He was recognized the 2002 Forbes Special Anniversary Big Ideas Issue as “one of the important innovators of our time, one of 15 people who will reinvent the future,” and was selected by Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of the top 100 “brilliant young innovators” in the world whose work will have “a deep impact on how we live, work, and think in the century to come.”
But Branagan said in 2016 that lightweight steel was always his ultimate goal. In 2012, General Motors Ventures LLC bought a stake in the company. "Over the next several years, light-weighting of vehicles will be a major focus area to improve fuel economy," said Jon Lauckner, GM's chief technology officer, vice president of Global R&D and president of GM Ventures. "NanoSteel's nano-structured alloys offer unique material characteristics that are not available today, making them a potential game-changer."
Commercial scale qualification of Advanced High Strength Steel began in North America in 2016. AHSS features a combination of very high strength with the enhanced formability normally found only in low-strength mild steels. The blend of properties provides designers the ability to optimize part geometries resulting in thinner, lighter components. Additionally, it allows part producers to avoid costly production processes, such as stamping shapes at high temperature (hot stamping), when forming the new designs.
Through the transaction announced Feb. 13, Lear Corp. becomes the first automotive Tier 1 supplier to license NanoSteel’s products. “After initial testing of NanoSteel’s AHSS, we are optimistic about its potential to contribute lighter materials for our vehicle seating structures,” said CEO and President Matthew J. Simoncini, in a press release. “Helping our customers meet their fuel economy targets is a clear priority for Lear, and we are enthusiastic supporters of new lighter-weight solutions that would allow us to use our current manufacturing infrastructure.”
Olivier Périer, CEO of SPDG, called NanoSteel “a compelling opportunity that targets two of our core investment theses, disruptive mobility solutions and environmental sustainability. We believe NanoSteel is positioned for significant growth,” he said.
NanoSteel president and CEO David Paratore said the latest investment brings the company to an inflection point, “where our focus has shifted from technology development to product deployment with our steel partners and automotive customers. Our relationships with Fortune 500-level partners have been a major factor in our accomplishments thus far and will be key to our success moving forward,” he said.