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Two INNoVATE Students Take First Place in Maryland Business Plan Competition

zerok nanotech holding check

Photo courtesy: Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute


When Adam Steele worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), he and two other colleagues invented a technology that Steele believed had commercial potential. But Steele, a physicist, didn’t have a business background. He said he had no idea how to take the technology out of the lab and build a company around it. His colleagues recommend he apply for the JHU Carey Business School INNoVATE program. He did so, and was soon accepted into the program’s Class of 2011.

Now he and fellow INNoVATE student Brenton Knuffman, who is one of the technology’s inventors, are quickly becoming a success story for the program. The duo, who both currently work for the University of Maryland NanoCenter, recently won first-place – and $10,000 – in the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute’s 2012 Business Plan Competition in the Graduate Student, Faculty and Researchers Category.

The company that Steele and Knuffman co-founded, zeroK Nanotech, is developing ion source technologies that enable precise machining, analysis, and imaging of materials on zerok nanotech logonanometer-length scales. Steele said that they believe the company’s biggest customer will be semiconductor circuit manufacturers though it can be used in many different fields including biotechnology and material science.

While they work to solidify the company’s future, Steele and Knuffman remain at Maryland on fractional appointments, meaning that the university encourages them to spend a percentage of their time on their burgeoning business. The plan for both is to continue to increase the percentage spent on the business until they can work solely for zeroK Nanotech.

The $10,000 prize is a good first step toward that goal. And it’s a win that Steele said is partly thanks to their year in the JHU INNoVATE program.

“We wouldn’t have been able to write the business plan as well as we did without the program,” he said. “The instructors at INNoVATE were very helpful with their feedback and in helping us refine our plan.

“While I know all the knowledge we gained during the program will be useful going forward, the business plan is always the first step,” he added. “It’s definitely the knowledge from that program that gave us the first place finish.”

Steele and Knuffman realize the $10,000 will take them only so far. The next step for zeroK Nanotech is going after a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant. If they get the grant, they’ll combine that money with additional seed funding to meet the first technical milestones for the technology. Once they’ve reached those milestones and mitigated some of the technical risks, they’ll start seeking a larger round of investment.  


View Steele's presentation about zeroK Nanotech at the MTECH Business Plan Competition.

Adam Steele

Photo courtesy Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute

CATEGORY: Academics, Featured