Taking Care of Business: Mad City Labs

Nano: The word rolls off the tongue as if it could be a name for a garage band or a cartoon character, but when affixed to units of length, it’s simply a term to designate the nanometer: 0.000000001 meters long. Objects this tiny are the focus of Mad City Labs, a technical microscopy equipment company in Madison, Wisconsin that recently asked Focal Flame Photography to help create images of some of their extremely specialized - and often, extremely small - scientific products.

Tiny doesn’t begin to describe the realities of nano-land, because even the most infinitesimally small tangible examples are measured in hundreds to thousands of nanometers (nm). Run a page between your fingers; it’s about 250,000 nanometers thick. At 75,000 nanometers, a human hair, while small, is still visible to the naked eye. Think smaller, think cellular. At about 5,000 nanometers, the human red blood cell is invisible without a light microscope. Though this same microscope has a tough time locating, at 800 nanometers, a dust particle. Far more powerful instruments and techniques are needed to visualize the virus that causes influenza, which is about 100 nanometers wide, or to study the structure of the “molecule of life,” the DNA helix, which is two nanometers wide. 

It’s difficult to detect anything this small let alone manipulate it - and yet, Madison, Wisconsin-based Mad City Labs develops and sells exceptionally specialized equipment such as nanopositioners that aid nanotechnology research. Much of the recent boom in this field was driven by development of instruments like atomic force microscopes, scanning tunneling electron microscopes, and others that allow visualization of nanometer-sized structures.  Today there are a breathtaking number of ways to leverage nanotechnology. Researchers are developing advanced materials for use in cars, airplanes, construction materials, and consumer goods. With the aid of ‘smart’ nanoparticles, disease-fighting drugs can be delivered to a specific place in human body in just the right amount. The unique conductive properties of some nanomaterials could be critical to making renewable energy feasible, or could lead to the next advanced computer chips. All of these real-world applications of nanotechnology require extraordinary tools. Jenice Con Foo, marketing manager at Mad City Labs, explains more about the company and its innovations.  

Focal Flame Photography (FFP): How long has your company been in business? How/why was the company started?
Mad City Labs (MCL):
 Mad City Labs was founded in 1999 in two basements in Madison (because it was way too cold to use the garage!) Our company manufactures and designs precision motion devices called nanopositioning systems that can position objects at the nanometer level.  In 1999 there was only one or two foreign owned companies supplying this to the entire industry – there was definitely an opportunity to enter the market and produce innovative products that meet the needs of researchers and industry leaders.

FFP: What is your company known for within your industry?
We are well-known for our innovative approach to instrument design and being flexible in our approach to providing solutions.  Within the scientific research community we are known for the technical expertise of our sales and support engineers.  We leverage our technical expertise with nanopositioning and our extensive scientific knowledge-base to provide instrument solutions.  This differentiates us from our competitors who simply focus on their specific product and not the application.

FFP: What do you find most exciting or fulfilling about the work you do?
 One of the most exciting parts of our work is assisting customers and researchers who are at the confluence of biology, physics and chemistry.  On any given day we could be hearing about really exciting research into understanding the nature of molecular and atomic structure within living organisms or materials.  We have been privileged to work with several Nobel Prize winners and as scientists we are not immune to the occasional geek-out moment!


FFP: What are some of the most frequent questions you hear about your company?
[We are often asked] Why are we located in Wisconsin instead of Silicon Valley? 
We are located in Madison because we the founders like living here!  However, it was also a confluence of events – the rise of the internet as a searchable directory of goods, an educated and skilled workforce, and a really solid manufacturing industry.  All of these factors really contributed to Mad City Labs being able to thrive in Madison rather than having to move to Silicon Valley or the East Coast.
FFP: Are there any ways that your company tries to “give back” to the local community? How?
At the local level we have an ongoing sponsorship with West Madison Little League to sponsor baseball and softball teams.  This gives us an opportunity to continue the legacy of little league baseball on the West Side of Madison.

FFP: If you could give advice to someone considering entering into this line of business, what would it be?
The advice we would offer any business at the start-up phase is to have a detailed plan with a timeline.  Any plan you develop must be flexible to allow you to seize opportunities IF they further your objectives.  Then, 100% commit to your business – don’t do it on the side!  All that planning deserves 100% of your time and resources to be successful.

FFP: How will you be using the photos Focal Flame provided?
The photos taken by Focal Flame have already been used on our exhibit backdrop as large format pictures.  They will also be used as part of our catalog photos and technical brochures for selected products.

FFP: Any thoughts you’d like to share about the photography experience?
We have very challenging products to photograph and both Clint and Josh brought a lot of creativity and patience to the project.  The scale of our products run from objects 1 inch tall to over 12 inches tall with lots of intricate parts, Focal Flame found ways to photograph our products to communicate the precision of our devices.  The overall photo shoot was incredibly collaborative and I would strongly recommend Focal Flame for any technical or product photography.

Big or small, regardless of the industry, Focal Flame is dedicated to showing your products in their best light. Learn more about commercial photography services from Focal Flame.  

- by Robyn M. Perrin