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The screens that dominate our lives—smartphones, tablets, televisions—keep getting sleeker and sleeker. Richard D. McCullough, dean of the College of Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that, soon enough, they'll be as thin as a coat of paint.
At Plextronics, where he is co-founder and chief scientist, McCullough is working to perfect conductive "ink." The ink is actually a polymer, or a synthesized chain of molecules, that can conduct electricity like metal while remaining flexible like rubber. It's a "disruptive technology that can be printed on anything," he says. A surface as thin as a magazine page, for instance, could become a bendable, foldable video player. "Imagine a Kindle (AMZN) or an iPad (AAPL) on steroids," says McCullough, 52, who earned his PhD in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University.
The technology builds off work that McCullough began in 1990, when he was an assistant professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon. After 10 years of federally funded research, he found a way to synthesize conductive polymers reliably and cheaply. He obtained a patent and recruited serial entrepreneur Andrew W. Hannah, who had worked at several early-stage technology companies, to help turn his ink into a business. They founded Plextronics in mid-2002, and Hannah, 45, took the job of chief executive officer.
Today the 65-person company manufactures McCullough's ink in its factory in Harmar Township, Pa., about 20 minutes outside Pittsburgh. The ink has many applications, and Raghu Das, CEO of research firm IDTechEx in Cambridge, Mass., says the market for printed and thin-film electronics will be $2.2 billion in 2011 and could reach $44.2 billion by 2021.
One of the first applications Plextronics is pursuing is in making better, cheaper, organic light-emitting diodes. OLEDs are essentially molecules in a layer that light up when electricity is applied. Unlike most of today's smartphone and TV display screens, which rely on liquid-crystal-display technology, OLEDs don't require backlighting, so they're far thinner and use less energy. McCullough says Plextronics's ink will be ready for smartphone screens within two or three years, and in larger displays a year or two after that.
OLEDs can also be used in conventional lighting fixtures. In late April, Plextronics announced its first distribution deal, with Sanyo Chemical Industries in Japan, which will market the ink for OLED lighting to major electronics companies. Plextronics is also developing a version of its ink for the solar industry. The company plans to start selling organic photovoltaic cells by 2012 and envisions their being used for indoor advertising, where they could power displays by harnessing energy from a store's overhead lighting—no batteries necessary.
Hannah says Plextronics had between $5 million and $10 million in revenue last year selling ink to manufacturers and researchers, and expects to do about the same this year. The company has raised a total of $55 million from investors, including Santa Clara (Calif.)-based Applied Materials (AMAT) and Solvay Chemicals in Brussels.
McCullough, who grew up in humble surroundings in Mesquite, Tex., and is the first member of his family to graduate from college, recognizes how far he's come. Growing up, "we were so poor we couldn't afford to get our oven fixed, so we cooked on a gas grill outside," he says. "Now I drive a Porsche Cayenne."
McCullough grew up poor in Mesquite, Tex., and is the first of his family to earn a college degree
A way to cheaply and reliably synthesize polymers that conduct electricity
Plextronics makes "inks" for paper-thin screens, lighting fixtures, and solar panels