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Nanotech Investors Play the Later Rounds

It's not exactly the dawn of the Nanotechology Age, but given how stingy venture capitalists have been regarding investing in nanotech, it passes for good news: A handful of the earliest nanotech start-ups appears to be bearing fruit -- and VCs are lining up to get in on the action.

During the peak of the tech bubble, VC firms were more than eager to put their ample funds into nanotech (VCs hasten to point out that there's no nanotech industry , but a science that may bring innovation to many industries). In 2000, 50 start-ups with a claim to using nanotechnology in their businesses raised $654 million, according to researcher VentureOne. Similarly, 2001 was another banner year for funding nanotech, with 58 start-ups netting $571 million. Like many of the dot-coms of those years, several of those companies raising money were simply very big ideas that showed promise in research labs.

But tech's lean times caused nanotech financing to slow. Last year, 41 companies raised $373 million, fairly even with the previous two years.

However, in the first quarter of this year, VentureOne says, 12 companies raised $155 million, nearly as much as was raised in the previous three quarters combined.

Venture funding is lumpy in general, but what's also encouraging is that many of the investments in the first quarter were the third or fourth rounds of fundings, which usually happens to companies that are actually selling products and expect to sell more.

"The first wave of nanotech companies are starting to spread out a little in the pack," says Alexander Wong, a partner at venture firm Apax Partners. "We're seeing a few of those early companies being funded at a higher level while others are falling back."

Among the recent nano-related venture investments are Nantero, a Woburn, Mass.-based maker of memory chips, which raised $15 million from Globespan Capital Partners and Draper Fisher Jurvetson; and NanoOpto, which raised $3.3 million from firms like Morganthaler Ventures, Harris & Harris (TINY) and DFJ.

Also in recent weeks, Nano-Tex, an Emeryville, Calif.-based maker of stain-repelling textiles, took in $35 million from investors such as Norwest Venture Partners and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And Nanomix, a maker of carbon nanotube-based sensors that is also based in Emeryville, garnered $16 million from Harris & Harris Group and Apax Partners.

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