How a Singapore startup is building breakthrough materials for biological imaging and product authentication by leveraging cutting-edge chemistry.
It sounds like something from science fiction: new materials concocted by chemists in a laboratory with the power to precisely tune vivid light efficiently, producing colours in their purest form.
Singapore startup Nanolumi has turned this concept into scientific fact. The advanced materials company is putting proprietary nano- and molecular technologies to work to create next-generation luminescent and optical materials. It is also successfully deploying these in a diverse range of verticals, from product authentication to bio-imaging for accelerating therapeutic discoveries.
“Materials matter – they are the foundational building-blocks of the way we live. What we’re aiming to do with our technology is come up with brand-new, innovative materials-led solutions that can solve all sorts of industry challenges and help society experience life to the fullest,” says Nanolumi CEO and co-founder, Jax Lee.
Today, Nanolumi’s innovative offerings straddle varying industry verticals – a remarkable feat for a company that only launched in 2018. But how has it achieved this rapid trajectory and transitioned its products from the research lab to market?
Building momentum with breakthrough technologies
Nanolumi’s story began in 2018, when nanomaterials and startup veteran Lee met leading chemists Prof Tan Zhi Kuang and Dr Wong Ying-Chieh. As Lee discovered, the chemists were engaged in groundbreaking perovskite research through the National University of Singapore (NUS).
CEO and Co-founder of Nanolumi, Jax Lee (left) with Co-founders Prof Tan Zhi Kuang (middle) and Dr Wong Ying-Chieh (right).
“The team had come up with a prototype green-spectrum perovskite quantum dot film that they believed electronic display manufacturers could use to sharply enhance the colours in LCD, MiniLED and OLED displays of all sizes,” Lee recalls.
“That method has helped us successfully overcome previous major limitations of perovskites related to stability and scalability. As a result, we can produce highly reliable perovskite nanocrystals that can be formed into luminescent materials and commercially applied in a variety of ways,” explains Lee. Part of the “exciting breakthrough” was also that the film allowed devices to radiate light more efficiently and so, consume less energy.
Together, Lee and Dr. Wong decided to form Nanolumi. Later that year, Lee had licensed its technology portfolio from NUS, and in 2019, the fledgling company launched the film as its flagship product. In 2020, it also unveiled the world’s first perovskite-enhanced 32-inch miniLED prototype display.
Developing core competencies to meet growth opportunities
Nanolumi’s launch sparked immediate interest from investors. In July 2019, it had secured US$1 million in seed funding to support the commercialisation of the full range of solutions in its portfolio.
The funding gave the team the confidence to branch out, and that same year they developed Reyal™ after being approached by a manufacturing partner seeking an effective way to identify counterfeit products.
Reyal™ works via carefully designed unique spectral “fingerprints” – a combination of luminescent materials – and highly precise optical tools companies can use to authenticate and trace products from anywhere in the world. “We custom engineer these markers from distinctive luminescent molecules that emit unique spectral Reyal™ Signatures,” says Lee.
Reyal™ platform in use.
The Reyal™ markers can be integrated into a wide range of products. For instance, it can be printed onto security labels or QR codes made up of different materials like paper and aluminium, or integrated into the production process of bulk liquids such as petroleum products. An accompanying reader and app – equipped with a high-definition sensor – enables the enterprise to scan a product for its marker and immediately verify its authenticity.
“That was a real turning point for us.” says Lee, “We realised that companies from a wide range of sectors – from consumer goods to automotive, electronics, pharmaceuticals and more – were urgently seeking solutions to the same problem, so they could safeguard their revenues, brands and keep customers safe. We also knew we had the technology to address this industry need."
The platform can also draw on geo-tagged data derived from every authentication scan to produce supply chain insights, statistics, and reports in real time, which can help support companies in their strategic decision making.
“The response has been terrific. We’re tagging more than 5,000 tons of plastics and a billion products a year – and that number is growing fast,” Lee reports.
A bright future
Nanolumi continues to be open to and collaborate early on with industry partners across different sectors, creating new applications for its luminescent materials. Its latest endeavour? Advancing treatments of diseases by acquiring Singapore-based biotechnology startup, Luminicell.
By manipulating lipid encapsulation platform technology, where therapeutic drugs are entrapped in a matrix of polymers and lipids to ensure controlled and continuous release, Luminicell has developed a unique luminescent material called AIEdots™. Currently, this material is used as a fluorescent probe – a tool that can help scientists tag live cells in ultra-bright fluorescent shades for up to ten cycles of their evolution to better monitor their development in laboratory experiments.
Cell imaging of spheroid growth in a 3D cell culture utilising Luminicell Tracker™ 670 in bright red fluorescence. Photo credit: Yasemin Geiger and Dr. Stefanie Sudhop, CANTER Lab, University of Applied Sciences Munich.
As Lee explains, there is also potential for research teams to use Luminicell’s approach for a range of other diagnostic applications in the field of deep-tissue bio-imaging. That includes mapping out vascular structures to target potential tumour cells.
“We’re very proud of our growing portfolio and want to continue building that momentum. To that end, we’ve just moved into a larger new facility with lots of collaborative space. We’ll be seeking to build new industry partnerships that encourage open innovation and the collaborative spirit – key parts of our product development approach,” Lee says.