In 2002, David Nackashi and John Damiano set out on a mission.
The two had met in graduate school while they were engaged in semiconductor work at NC State. They knew they were good at making chips, so they co-founded Protochips simply as a way to make custom chips for clients.
But pretty early on, Nackashi said, the duo realized that electron microscopy was a much more scalable business. In this way, Protochips could enable better batteries and more efficient catalysts (which speed up chemical reactions without undergoing permanent chemical changes themselves) in the energy sector.
After raising around $2.5 million, mostly from the Department of Energy, in the mid 2000s, they launched their first product in 2009. Despite being right amid the recession, they also successfully raised a Series A round that year and have been growing steadily ever since, having raised more than $8 million to date.
Today, Protopchips employs more than 50 employees and serves hundreds of customers in around 20 countries. It was recently named to the 2022 edition of Scot Wingo’s Tweener list.
But it was five years ago that the company really started on a new growth trajectory. It was then that they began investing in machine vision, imagining that they could increase the performance of their products while making them significantly easier to use for someone of average skill level. Protochips is in the TEM (transmission electron microscopy) space, a process by which a beam of electrons is transmitted through a specimen to form an image; machine vision refers to interpreting those images.
“When we started off, I never would have guessed we would end up in a data analysis, machine vision field,” Nackashi said. “I thought it was always about the hardware we’re making. We realized that the biggest asset that our company has isn’t the equipment we make. It’s the information that our customers get with the equipment, and how we can help them get better information.”
As a company that’s grown over two decades now, Nackashi said by far the greatest lesson he’s learned along the way is to invest in your team.
“The best lesson we learned is to figure out what you’re good at and where you’re not, and to plug those holes with the best people possible,” Nackashi said. “You’re not rewarded by what you can do. You’re rewarded by what you can get your team to do.”
It was this team that weathered the storm of Covid-19 and emerged even stronger on the other side of it. Protochips’ machine vision product Axon had just launched in December 2019, and the first shipments were set for March 2020. Despite the timing, Protochips flourished.
“When people make capital equipment purchases, there’s momentum,” Nackashi said. “Believe it or not, 2020 and 2021 were our best two years ever in terms of revenue and profitability.”
Because the pandemic forced Protochips to make tough decisions on cost structure, they came out “leaner and meaner,” Nackashi said. Ultimately, this means Protochips can more successfully fulfill its mission to make the process of scientific discovery smarter, faster and easier.
“We want to really help our customers—research labs, companies—develop products that really have a huge impact on energy and energy materials,” Nackashi said. “We want batteries to last longer. We want catalysts to be more efficient. We want the world to be more efficient in the way that we use energy.”
The single greatest challenge facing Protochips now, as an unexpected company to deliver a cutting-edge machine vision product, Nackashi said, is just getting the word out.
“It’s a pretty incredible, compelling product,” Nackashi said. “When you look at it, it looks every bit as slick and nice as some of the Adobe tools. It’s just an unexpected product from a company our size, and we want to make sure everybody knows about it.”
For the rest of the year and beyond, Nackashi said Protochips looks to continue capitalizing the business so they can grow faster.
“Since we started the business, this is the most excited this team has ever been,” Nackashi said. “We’ve got the largest total addressable market we’ve had as a business, and we’ve entered a very important space first, and we want to maximize that.”