Quest for Knowledge Spurs Nanotechnology Entrepreneur Karen Buechler
Curiosity has served Karen Raska Buechler, BE’94, well. It was curiosity that led her to Vanderbilt University School of Engineering for a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and on to graduate school in Colorado for her master’s and doctorate. In the Rocky Mountains, curiosity combined with an entrepreneurial spirit and supportive family helped Buechler become the co-founder, president and chief technology officer of an innovative nanotechnology company, ALD NanoSolutions.
“Life takes you to interesting, intriguing places,” Buechler says. “Fifteen years ago I would have never anticipated that I would be sitting in a boardroom with Fortune 50 executives and other industry leaders.”
ALD NanoSolutions began when Buechler, P. Michael Masterson and two professors, Steven George and Alan Weimer, met at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Using licensed research and intellectual property developed in the George/Weimer laboratories at the university, the four set out to use atomic layer deposition (ALD) technology to apply ultrathin nanocoatings on nanoparticle surfaces. The technology has the potential to solve materials problems in a wide variety of industries.
Buechler describes nanotechnology as a challenging field with new material development. “The material development world is quite interesting. You have both long-term applications where changes are revolutionary, as well as short-term applications where significant improvements to the end product can provide a drop-in solution for the customer,” she says. “We are currently working on both types of projects and they both have their own unique challenges.”
Her company works with strategic partners to design materials primarily for the aerospace, electronics and automotive industries. Buechler leads the product development efforts, explaining that she develops virtually any applications that are technically possible and economically viable. She also guides research execution and project management, works with client partners to fulfill their needs, and helps develop the brand of the company.
ALD NanoSolutions focuses on commercializing its patented nanocoating processes, called Particle ALD and Polymer ALD, and targets collaborative research agreements with other partners for the discovery and validation of innovative composite materials. Funded predominately by grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and Department of Energy, the firm’s projects typically involve materials technology related to the ALD nanocoating of fine particles as well as of flat or particle polymer surfaces.
The company currently has protective coating materials being tested on the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE). The MISSE program tests the long-term effects on materials exposed to the space environment. “These materials are plastics with a protective coating to keep them from degrading in the extreme ultraviolet radiation and hyperthermal oxygen that are in the near-Earth orbit,” Buechler says. “The coating is a multilayer of two or three different ceramics that are hundreds of nanometers thick.”
Lifelong Passion for Knowledge
Buechler’s interest in chemical engineering began with her parents. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother held a chemistry degree. At an early age, Buechler was hungry for knowledge and relished every opportunity to solve basic and complex problems. She says that she and her siblings were encouraged to pursue and actualize whatever they desired. “Their support and confidence enabled me to flourish as a woman in engineering,” Buechler reflects.
“At 18, I was drawn to Vanderbilt largely due to the reputation of the university and the quality of credible research,” Buechler says. “The amount of one-on-one attention and the close-knit learning environment are testaments to the quality of education you receive at Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering.”
While an undergraduate, Buechler took classes from Eva Sevick, professor of chemical engineering. Sevick had recently completed her dissertation and challenged Buechler to experience independent study. Buechler’s enthusiasm and focus were also prompted by Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering Karl Schnelle Jr. and his accomplishments. Describing the faculty at Vanderbilt, Buechler says, “I was always impressed by the wonderful mixture of experiences and drive that helped guide me to where I am today.”
“Fifteen years ago I would have never anticipated that I would be sitting in a boardroom with Fortune 50 executives and other industry leaders.”
~ Karen Buechler
When she was considering her next steps, Tomlinson Fort, then-chair of the chemical engineering department, suggested Buechler employ her ever-unfolding curiosity and apply to graduate school. Following his recommendation, Buechler completed her doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1999.
It was there, as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, that Buechler was instrumental in developing and patenting the technology that led to ALD NanoSolutions.
“Getting my education opened a lot of doors for me and created a wealth of opportunities,” Buechler says. Although she didn’t set out to be a company president only 15 years after graduation from VUSE, Buechler says that flexibility and openness to different paths were critical in what she’s achieved so far. She also credits her husband, Ken, for his support and patience.
“When you go to build a company from scratch, you often find yourself working for no take-home pay for some time. This can be an enormous burden to a family,” Buechler says. She and Ken married when Buechler was a junior at Vanderbilt (“A pretty unusual step,” she admits). “If it weren’t for my husband’s extreme patience and his flexibility in life/vision this never would have been possible for me.”
Looking toward the future, the nanotechnology guru believes there is still much to achieve. On this note, she encourages young engineers not to limit themselves too early. “Don’t wait for an opportunity,” she advises. “Create it for yourself.”