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Nanotech investors curb their enthusiasm

Nanotechnolgy  holds the potential for huge profits from the creation of tiny materials and devices.  But unlike the late stages of the dot-com bubble, investors are looking for  nano-startups with real products, real growth and a clear path to profitability. By CNBC's Cory Johnson
/ Source: CNBC

It’s one of the world's most powerful disinfectants, but so non-toxic, you can drink it. It's changing the way consumers clean, but because of its unique way of destroying germs, bacteria and disease, it may usher in a new era in health care.

Tiny EnviroSystems in San Jose, Calif. is fighting fire with fire. By manipulating the  individual molecules of a standard industrial disinfectant, the company has created an anti-bacterial cleanser so powerful, so popular and so safe, that it can't mix the stuff fast enough.

As a disinfectant, it's 100-percent effective against hepatitis, e-coli, even HIV and a laundry list of particularly nasty infectious threats. But because its lethal ingredients have been engineered away, one molecule at a time, this product is completely non-toxic...

“You always thought of having to kill bad things, bad bugs, with highly toxic products,” said EnviroSystems founder Diana Hoffman. “It's difficult to think in terms of: how can it be safe if it kills things, right? Well, this is.”

EnviroSystems is one of a handful of small but increasingly mighty companies, creating innovative products that would be otherwise impossible without advances in nanotechnology. In fact biotechnology companies, like EnviroSystems, are attracting the most venture capital dollars of any nanotech sector over the past 5 years.

Some 45 venture capital firms have invested nearly $200 million in 12 nanotech startups. That’s hardly an investment frenzy. But venture capitalists call it a “measured strategy” to invest in the best. And the companies establishing a nanotech beachhead reads like a who's who in biotech:  Medimmune, Genencor, Genentech, and  Celera Genomics.

“We see nanotechnology as potentially a very large market in the future as opposed to one today,” said Alex Wong, a venture capitalist at Apax Partners.

Wong specializes in funding nano startups. His firm examined more than 500 nano investments over the past year, but only put money in two. He is not an investor in EnviroSystems, but says nano-companies like it -- with real products, real growth and a clear path to profitability -- are what investors should be looking for.

“I think investors are still being very prudent in looking for companies that don't have just the nano name, but have something that is uniquely different,” said Wong. “And those are very hard to find.”

That's why EnviroSystems and its technology are so compelling, not just to industry, but to investors.

The company’s disinfectant, called EcoTru, uses something called "nano-emulsive particles" that are so small, they can wiggle their way through the walls of a bacteria cell and destroy it from within. It’s a kind of nanotech smart bomb -- smart, because the particles target tiny bacteria and germs, while leaving larger human or animal cells alone. That’s why it’s the only disinfectant on the market sold without any warning labels of any kind.

“What we've learned is by using the small particle size, we can have far greater effectivity and yet no toxicity for the product,” said Rodger Richeal, EnviroSystems Chief Technology Officer

That discovery lead to a whole new direction for the company; far more intriguing and immeasurably more lucrative.

“We had donated Eco-Tru as a surface disinfectant to a group called "angel docs" that fly down to Africa to do pro-bono surgeries,” said Hoffman. “They ran out of anti-septic and started using it on surgical patients. It eliminated post-operative infections in 500 out of 500 patients.”

There have been no clinical tests to prove these results -- something that would be required by the FDA -- but thanks to nanotechnology, this "cleanser" could launch a new era in eradicating bacteria and infectious disease.

EnviroSystems has conducted some preliminary testing with a company in Texas that grows human skin used in burn victim reconstruction. When the technology was incorporated into the process, EnviroSystems says, it eliminated the risk of organ rejection. The company continues to seek funding for such projects but says, for now, its primary focus is on the world of disinfectants.

(CNBC's Jim Goldman and Candice Tahi contributed to this story.)