Paul Lichty’s journey from PhD student to running one of the world’s top atomic layer deposition (ALD) companies was shaped by his time at CU Boulder. Today, Lichty (MechEngr BS‘06, ChemEngr PhD‘11) is the CEO of Forge Nano, overseeing the development of the Thornton, Colorado-based company’s cutting-edge nano coating technology.
Nano coating, applying a thin protective layer at the nanoscale (with particles about one billionth of a meter in size) on various surfaces greatly improves the durability, performance and lifespan of coated objects and unlocks material characteristics not found in nature.
“The analogy we use is M&M's — their candy shells prevent the chocolate from melting in your hand,” Lichty said. “We coat materials at a very small single-atom level, and that allows the underlying material to not melt or corrode.”
ALD technology is most utilized for the semiconductor industry, however, Lichty said Forge Nano stands out globally as the sole company that has extended ALD beyond the semiconductor domain. Its technology is most notably used to optimize battery characteristics including range, safety and cycle life, with significant implications for longer range electric vehicle batteries that require less frequent charging.
Susan Glairon sat down with Lichty to explore the impact of CU Boulder on the growth of Forge Nano and his life today.
How did you go from PhD student to CEO of one of the world’s top ALD companies?
While attending CU Boulder for my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, I learned Professor Alan Weimer's lab in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering was doing some really cool stuff with renewable energy. I asked Al if I could work in his lab, and he hired me. I stayed for a year after graduating and then I pursued a PhD in chemical engineering to keep working on my research. So I went to CU for a very long time!
Within Al's group, we had several focuses. One was “atomic layer deposition” (ALD), which is what we do at Forge Nano; other projects concentrated on solar energy for production of green hydrogen and biofuels.
As a PhD student, I helped start a biofuels company called Sun Drop Fuels. After I graduated, I worked for Sun Drop helping with the R&D group and learned a lot about entrepreneurship. Sun Drop raised a lot of money. It had a really interesting technology, but suffered from gasoline prices dropping from $4 per gallon to $1.75, or whatever the low was, which killed off a whole crop of biofuel companies.
At the same time we had also developed and patented an idea for scaling up the ALD process and established a separate company, Forge Nano. While working at Sun Drop, I spent nights and weekends in my garage building a prototype of the ALD reactor and running chemical processes. Eventually we started winning some grants and getting development customers. I jumped to full time to become the CEO of Forge Nano, and I've been here ever since.
How exactly did you grow the company?
We're at about 100 employees now, but getting a company going always takes longer than you’d like. We bootstrapped the whole thing for about four years working on it part time. My partner, David King (ChemEngr PhD ‘08) and I got it going to a point where we could work full time. We then grew to about eight employees, just selling development services and equipment, hustling the entire time. Then one of our customers decided they liked what we were doing, and that's when we raised our first funding round. Ever since we started taking on investments, we've been able to grow. Just recently we closed on another financing round, $50 million led by Korea’s Hanwha with participation from Orion Infrastructure Capital (OIC), Catalus Capital, Ascent Funds, and existing investors and that's going to help us build a battery factory that integrates our technology. So we have many irons in the fire.
When you were in Professor Al Weimer’s lab, did you envision Forge Nano would get this big?
I joined Al's lab because I wanted to do something that helps humans transition from unsustainable energy sources; I never envisioned starting an ALD company. But once I understood that our ALD technology allows for the best materials engineering that humans are capable of—because we do it at a single atom—I realized we could change lots of products to make them safer, cheaper and more efficient. For instance, with batteries we can achieve a 20 percent increase in range, enhance safety and prolong their lifespans so that people will be able to buy electric cars and not have range anxiety.
It's difficult to think of anything else I could have done that would have as big an impact as this company.
What other products utilize this nano coating technology?
The biggest and most well-known commercial application is in the semiconductor industry, and a lot of sensors and chips have this ALD process on them. Our company is the only one in the world that's taken ALD outside the semiconductor space. Now we have commercial products in solid state lighting and phosphors, magnetics, energetics and medical devices. We end up doing work in all kinds of cool and crazy applications where they just need better materials design.
Some customers buy the systems and coat their products at their factories — we have about 90 coating machines installed globally. But if a company doesn't make enough product to justify buying a system, we can toll coat and upgrade their product on our equipment, and then ship it back to them. We probably have the largest ALD coating facility in the world.
It seems like pursuing your PhD in chemical engineering at CU was life-changing.
It was! I met a lot of really smart and hard working people at CU who helped push me. My wife is also an alumna — we met at CU Boulder.
I was on CU Boulder’s student council for five years, which is probably longer than almost anybody. My campus involvement provided me with not just technical experiences, but organizational leadership. There's plenty of opportunities at CU Boulder if you look. A lot of universities now have venture groups where they help students and faculty get companies started. That didn't exist at CU when we did this 12 years ago, but it does now.
I alway tell people, regardless of how the football team is doing, CU Boulder engineering is always one of top-10 funded engineering colleges in the country. It's an excellent place to get your degree and can be a springboard to much more.
What is your vision for the future?
We're a company that can upgrade almost any physical product you can imagine. We're going to keep trying to grow the company and change the world until it stops being fun. And then we'll figure out what else to do.