Photo: Bax Lindhardt

High-tech spin-out on the verge of global breakthrough

Tuesday 06 Nov 18
by Marianne Vang Ryde


Anders Kristensen
Head of Sections, Professor
DTU Health Tech
+45 45 25 63 31


CEO Theodor Nielsen


It takes a long time to develop high-tech products and explain to the world why they are useful. The spin-out NIL Technology is a good example of this.

“Your idea is good, but we don’t think that it will be very successful, so we would not advise that you start up a company.” This was the message that two PhD students at DTU Nanotech Theodor Nielsen and Brian Bilenberg received from an advisor in 2006.

They had, however, received positive feedback at several competitions for their business concept, which is based on an invention Theodor made together with two DTU professors. And the negative message did not dampen Theodor’s spirits; on the contrary, it lit a fire in him.

Today, 12 years later, he is responsible for 18 employees in the company NIL Technology, which specializes in nanopatterning and nanoimprint lithography. Despite the warning, the company managed to establish itself and, after a long start-up phase, the dream of global success is finally within view:     

“Our technology will soon be a part of much of the high-tech equipment we all use. Over the next five years, we will grow to more than 100 employees and have a global presence,” says Theodor Nielsen.

Started with a patent

It all began at DTU.

"Our technology will soon be a part of much of the high-tech equipment we all use. Over the next five years, we will grow to more than 100 employees and have a global presence."
Theodor Nielsen, CEO, NIL Technology

Along with professors Anders Kristensen and Ole Hansen, Theodor Nielsen invented a new method for easily and accurately imprinting nanostructures on a surface, typically silicon or glass; so-called nanoimprint lithography (NIL), from which the name, NIL Technology, was formed.

The technology is relevant in the production of various high-tech components within optics, biotechnology, and sensors. One application for nanostructures is making the lenses of, e.g., mobile phones smaller than they are today.

DTU patented the idea, and Theodor Nielsen—who had been keen to create jobs and growth throughout his studies—formed a business plan together with Brian Bilenberg and a couple of other students from DTU on the basis of the patent.

The project won second place in the entrepreneurship competition Venture Cup. They attracted quite a bit of interest, and after a while the students began to see it as more than just a good idea, even though some advisers thought it would be difficult to turn it into a profitable business.

“It was a very new field, and many people didn’t understand it. You could argue that the advisor was right, if by a profitable business he meant that the company should be able to be sold for millions within five to seven years, which is the typical investment horizon of many venture companies. Seen through that perspective, we are not exactly a success. But in the course of 12 years, we have managed to take a very advanced technology, make it applicable, and create a business with a turnover of between DKK 20 and 30 million per year. We have built an incredible base of knowledge and created a considerable customer base. So far, we have sold our technology to companies that have used it for the development of their products. Their development has succeeded, and we are now on the verge of a real commercial breakthrough, because products with nanoimprint made using our technology are on their way to the market and will available for purchase to consumers within about two years,” says Theodor Nielsen.

Close-up of the nanostructure in the surface of a silicon wafer. The nanostructures are produced with a stamp used in a production method called nanoimprint lithography. A possible application of nano structures is to make camera linses smaller. Photo: Bax Lindhardt.

The company has certainly not been idle during its 12 years. NIL Technology has an ongoing process of researching and developing projects—including with DTU—and recently bought another patent based on a collaboration between Theodor Nielsen and professor Anders Kristensen.

In 2009, they had an idea for how nanoimprint technology could also be used to nanostructure moulds for injection casting plastic.

With their technique, you can give the plastic different properties already in the casting phase, like making it water repellent colouring it—without using dyes. And thus, the market for NIL Technology increased considerably.

Anchored at DTU

Some of the largest and well-known high-tech companies in the world are among NIL Technology’s client base. Theodor Nielsen can say that much, but for business reasons he cannot mention their names.

“We are helping develop the products that we will all be using for many years to come. And that is really exciting from both a commercial and an engineering point of view: What we create is actually being used,” he says.

The upcoming expansion means that NIL Technology will soon have activities in several places in the world, but the company will always be present at DTU, says Theodor Nielsen:

“DTU is deeply rooted in our DNA. The company is based on an idea that was created at DTU, and is a direct result of the university’s establishment of the clean room Danchip and their willingness to bet on research in nanotechnology.

The access to silicium processing in DTU Danchip is very important to our business.

The university is still our most important partner, we have offices here, we develop new technology with researchers at DTU Nanotech, and we rent DTU Danchip. We are simply DTU students at heart, mind, and emotion.

12 years ago, Theodor Nielsen—then a PhD student at DTU—and two professors came up with a method for imprinting nanostructures on a surface.

Using nanoimprint lithography, you can imprint nanostructures on surfaces made of glass or silicon.

One application for nanostructures is making the lenses of, e.g., mobile phones smaller than they are today.

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