Nov 3, 2012 · 15 minutes

Matthew Putman was 31 when doctors found a tumor under his Adam’s Apple. He didn’t tell anyone. Not his parents. Not even his wife. He simply went into the hospital, had the tumor removed, got blasted with radiation, then returned to work as if nothing had happened.

A year passed and he started having trouble swallowing again. He learned he had esophageal cancer. This time he would need chemotherapy. He would lose his hair. He would have to tell.

The doctors caught the tumor early, so even though esophageal cancer typically has an 18 percent survival rate, he was given 50/50 odds. The prospect of his own mortality gave him the confidence to try something ridiculous. His life hanging in the balance, he wanted to leave behind an idea that someone could build on, an invention his newborn daughter could be proud of. In a half-daze induced by the pot cookies he ate as a form of medication, Putman, a self-taught scientist, worked on a formula that would lead to a microscope that can view smaller-than-micron details in super resolution, and in real time.

The microscope, which fits on a desktop and can scale for industrial use, has potentially profound implications for the future of nanotechnology and medicine. Its initial application has been in the semiconductor industry, where manufacturers have used the microscope to detect minute flaws in chips at such an early stage that it has proven possible to drastically reduce failure rates. In a medical context, the technology could also be used to spot pre-cancerous cell divisions almost instantly, potentially saving lives. Before the end of the year, New York’s Jamaica Hospital will trial the technology to identify cell abnormalities in Pap tests.

This invention forms the basis for Putman’s startup, Nanotronics Imaging, which has grand visions for this technology. It fills the gap between optical microscopes and electron microscopes, boasting the portability of the former while approaching the power of the latter, and adding in a real-time inspection element that until now hasn’t been possible. In their most excitable moments, Putman and his colleagues talk about a future in which they can show the AIDS virus attacking a cell as it happens. They see applications for it in life sciences, material design, and alternative energy. And, if they have their way, it won’t just be stuck in a lab. It is designed specifically for industrial use, which is facilitated by its portability and speed of image processing.

Nanotronics doesn’t have venture backing. Putman tried, but he couldn’t raise it, although he does have some angel investment. He was turned off by the venture vultures. One Silicon Valley venture capitalist asked if the technology could be turned into an app. His headquarters isn’t in a celebrated tech hub either. It’s in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, population 49,652, and Nanotronics’ employees come from companies like Duramax Marine, robotics giant ABB, and Tech-Pro, a rubber-manufacturing instruments business Putman’s parents built in the 1980s and sold to Roper Industries in 2008.

Nanotronics, you could say, is built on the fumes of America’s dying rubber industry.

*          *          *

Matthew Putman is an enigma. While most scientists excel in one discipline, he spreads himself across science, education, music, theater, cinema, poetry, and business. At Columbia, he teaches courses on deploying nanoparticles in polymers to create flexible electronics, bio-scaffolds, and solar panels. A trained jazz pianist, he has self-released one album, 2008’s “Perennial,” contributed to another, 2009’s “Gowanus Recordings,” and produced off-Broadways shows. As well as being an artist-in-residence for Imagine Science Films, he was an associate producer of a movie called “Definition of Insanity.” He recently self-published a book of poetry, “Magnificent Chaos,” which sounds a bit like his life, and he is a prolific Internet commenter, with numerous blogs and contributions to Quora, where he has weighed in on topics ranging from Rage Against the Machine’s political views to the meaning of Umberto Eco's 1988 novel “Foucault's Pendulum." Then, of course, there’s his company, for which he has high hopes.

In the age of specialties and laser focus, Putman runs the other way. Yet there are advantages to being a generalist. Steve Jobs was one. Ken Auletta described Jobs in the New Yorker as a bridge “between businessmen and technology, between designers and technology, between animators and engineers and the public.” Other notable multi-disciplinarians include Isaac Newton, who was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian; and Leonardo Da Vinci, who was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. By those standards, Putman is a veritable monomaniac.

Putman thinks he has benefited from his exposure to a broad range of influences. “Going to a lot of movies and producing movies and producing plays, and everything else I did, was something that’s very strange when you go to get a PhD, because everybody else in your PhD program has been doing differential equations automatically since they were eight,” he says. Having a background of diverse interests helped him consider subjects in novel ways.

On a fall evening in New York City, Putman, wearing round spectacles and a scraggly brown beard flecked with white, leans forward over a tall bottle of Belgian beer. He’s at The Odeon, a Tribeca restaurant that in its 1980s heyday was a hangout spot for the cast of Saturday Night Live. It’s a classic bistro – wicker chairs, white table cloths, steak tartare – and on this Monday night every seat is occupied. A din of conversation resounds off the mirrored walls and lino floors. Across the table sits his friend David Larkin (glass of red wine), an angel investor in Nanotronics and the chairman of its board. Larkin has his own startup, GoWatchIt, which offers an app for maintaining movie queues.

The two men clearly enjoy each other’s conversation, which ranges from Steven Pinker’s theories on the evolution of societal order to liberalism in New York. At one point, Larkin flashes his geek credentials by enthusing that the iPhone is so much more advanced than the Tricorder from “Star Trek.” Putman says he just wishes he could use it to make calls on Columbia University’s campus, where cell reception is notoriously weak.

Putman splits his time between New York and Ohio, where he grew up under the watch of his father, John, who he describes as a brilliant engineer. John, ostensibly retired and living in Florida, serves as Nanotronics’ president. Much of Putman’s motivation for success seems to stem from the competitive relationship he has with his dad. The reason he raced through college in three years was because his dad had finished it in three years.

After completing a music degree at Baldwin-Wallace, a private liberal arts college in Ohio, Putman worked as an executive for Tech-Pro, the family business, and started part-time on a PhD in Applied Mathematics and Engineering at Columbia University, where he now teaches as a researcher two hours a week. His work for Tech-Pro took him to many countries. He was in Germany in 2004 when he found himself having trouble swallowing. His problems culminated one night when he was drinking whiskey with a friend and started choking. A doctor came to Putman’s hotel, and did an endoscope through his nose. He saw a spot. Putman would have to go to the hospital to get it checked out. “I could tell by that response that he knew it was cancer,” Putman says.

A year later, going through chemo after the cancer had returned, Putman turned his attention to his PhD dissertation, fixating on the idea of super-resolution. Dragging himself to a piece of paper or a computer was one of the few things he could do at the time. He’d come home exhausted from getting treatment and fall asleep on the couch.

“They gave me a really, really hard dose, they really hit it hard,” he says of the chemo. “So I would be completely out of it.” He’d then wake up and watch “Star Trek” – the original whenever possible, sometimes “Next Generation.”

“But never ‘Deep Space 9,’” Putman stresses, with a laugh, “even in my worst-case scenario.”

His wife, Marine, made him pot cookies as a form of medication and to get him eating again. He weighed 150 pounds at the time. These days, cancer-free, he weighs 190. But to Putman, the weed was no big deal. “I think ‘Star Trek’ was a bigger influence than being stoned.”

He also used the time to imagine what the future should look like and wondered what he could accomplish. Nanotechnology was of particular interest. At that time, 2005, it was kind of laughed at, he says. A common argument was that we’ve talked about nanotechnology for five years and nothing has come of it. But he’d seen incredible things in the labs at Columbia, and he knew that it just needed to be scaled.

“The one excuse I wanted to eliminate was the fact that if you could see it, you can create it; you can work out the bugs in it,” he says. “So I was just going to leave a mathematical document. I was going to leave a blueprint. It sounds very melodramatic, but it’s really how I felt. I thought I could have died.”

*          *          *

Last August, Putman gave two talks at TEDxEastHampton, one on nanotechnology, the other on using liquid elastomers – rubber – to make spacesuits of the future. Dressed in a red polo and chinos, Putman cut an awkward figure on stage. His presentations lacked the polish of the TED talks that your friends share on Facebook. His speech was stuttering, peppered with incomplete sentences. Occasionally, he would stop to cough. He didn’t seem to know quite what to do with his hands.

At the beginning of dinner at The Odeon, he comes across the same way: unsure of his assertions, constantly re-calibrating his sentences, unwilling to make too boastful a claim. It’s not a speech impediment. After a couple of beers, and when he starts talking about science rather than himself, his speech becomes more fluid. But for now, contemplating his own abilities as a scientist, he’s like a man of multiple minds.

“When I was a kid, I uh,” he starts. “I. I, I, I was always trying to be really good but never feeling like it, you know, always trying to work very hard. And now I feel like I kind of get [pause] – I feel kind of the opposite. I feel, like who should I. I feel almost, it feels almost. I mean, I’m not nearly the mathematician of the other professors at Columbia. I’m not. So I feel kind of now, like uh. I maybe played down my abilities then, and now I feel like sometimes I, I play them up a little bit too much in order to just get by. And that’s kind of a shame.”

Larkin, his investor and friend, used to get mad at him because he wanted Putman to say – he corrects himself, looking over at Larkin: “to admit” – what a great idea his microscope was. Larkin, a savvier marketer who comes from a background in the film industry, chimes in: “I was right about that.” But, Putman says, the microscope require an incredible amount of mathematical modeling. “I guess that that’s the thing that’s probably good about it at the same time,” he says, warming slightly to his salesman task. “That’s what makes it achievable for a programmer to come and work for us, and I can explain it to him and he can get right into it.”

It turns out that Putman’s self-assessment is pretty accurate. In 2011, just after his family sold Tech-Pro and just before he started Nanotronics, he went to Paris to work with a respected rubber scientist at Paris-Sorbonne Universités named Jean Leblanc. Together, the two published a paper with the melodious title: “A thorough study on the relationships between dispersion quality and viscoelastic properties in carbon black filled SBR compounds.”

Leblanc, who responded to questions by email, describes Putman as a “slightly above average” scientist. “He is a good physicist but tends to embrace too many projects in the same time, at the risk of achieving none in due time,” Leblanc says. The Frenchman, who recalls Putman fondly, thinks he is more European than American, in a sense, because he doesn’t want to specialize in a single subject. “He has eclectic interests and does not hesitate to start collaborating with people working in completely different fields,” Leblanc says. “Surely not the best route to target a Nobel prize, but surely a manner to have fun.”

Putman didn’t have formal training in math or science before he started his PhD, but he knew they were the ways to fix important problems, like curing cancer or finding new sources of alternative energy. So after he was accepted into the program, he bought and read a copy of “Calculus for Dummies.” That’s how he learned the notoriously difficult mathematical discipline.

After earning his doctorate, Putman met Larkin at an event for the Montauk Observatory, for which both men are board members. He came to believe that Larkin might be able to help him find a market for his microscope. As it happened, Larkin had a friend in the semiconductor industry who wanted to find a better way to detect defects in semiconductor wafers. And so Nanotronics optimized its technology for semiconductor manufacturers. But its customers decided that they wanted an image processor more than the actual super-resolution microscope. It turns out that they don’t need to see anything that small just yet. They will soon, says Putman.

So, in essence, Nanotronics pivoted to serve its clients. Its nSPEC product lets manufacturers identify, categorize, and record wafer features in real time. IQE, a supplier of advanced semiconductor wafer products based in Cardiff, Wales, says that Nanotronic’s automated inspection system has significantly reduced the chance of human error and improved repeatability compared to manual microscope inspection.

A more exciting application for Nanotronics’ technology, however, might be in medicine. At the end of the year, the company is launching nPATH, an automated microscope system for easy scanning of pathology slides and tissues. Just as the tool can find a nano-size defect in a semiconductor wafer, it could also identify abnormalities in cells that could then be targeted for treatment before a tumor develops.

“The way we deal with cancer right now is that we deal with it once a microscope is no longer needed,” says Putman. “So we deal with it by poisoning a person and cutting out a big part of their body, and shooting them with radioactive ions.” He wants to cut cancer off before it gets to that point.

“I don’t want to deal with cancer,” he says. “I want to deal with pre-cancerous cell division. The way to do that is to image things that are small. If you can see something that’s very, very small, you can prevent it from becoming a tumor.”

The technology is going to get an early test on Pap smear cells at New York’s Jamaica Hospital under a trial being carried out by Dr Georges Sylvestre, who is a friend of Putman and an advisor to Nanotronics. Sylvestre is vice-chairman of the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department and director of the maternal-fetal medicine division.

“Potentially, it has a way to revolutionize the use of cervical screening technology,” says Sylvestre, a native of Montreal who speaks with a French accent. Pap smears haven’t evolved much in the eight decades since they were invented. A doctor takes a smear, places it on a slide, stains the slide, and then sends it off to a pathologist for reading. It usually takes a couple of days to get the result back. Nanotronics’ nPATH system, however, would let doctors do the tests at the patient’s bedside, without needing a special stain, and could produce the results instantly.

“If we’re able to give results to women in a wealthy, affluent country like ours, and have the answer now that’ll be good,” says Sylvestre. “But also to take it to a different level and take the technology to different places where cytopathologists are not readily available or are hundreds of miles away and the intricacies are very difficult, it might be even more useful for these women.”

I ask Sylvestre how significant he thinks Putman’s invention is. His response is immediate and emphatic. “Very,” he says. “There’s no stronger words.”

*          *          *

In the introduction to “Magnificent Chaos,” his book of poems, Putman riffs on two of his favorite topics: science and philosophy. “The early universe and its future are the domains of astrophysicists, cosmologists and biologists,” he writes. “Our bodies are the labs of the same. Consciousness is still a mystery. It is a sense rather than a science. If then our consciousness is chaos, our poems are the cellular order that balances it.”

Back in the restaurant, Putman runs his right hand over his beard, which looks a few weeks old. He’s talking about the effect that nearly dying had on his psyche. It gave him the confidence to be more radical, he says.

“I would never have grown a beard,” he says, hand-on-bristle, indicating the patches of white. “I have all these spots, I would never have done that.” He doesn’t care about little stuff like that anymore. On the other hand, small anxieties – about raising money, bugs in the software, closing a deal – remain with him. But he says he will continue to take risks and try to do big things rather than small things; “things that will make a big difference to the world rather than the things that won’t.”

The irony is that he is using the smallest things to realize those big dreams. Putman is banking on nanotechnology, imaging the planet’s tiniest atomic units, to bring order to the chaos of his world. His poems are not just written in words, but also in algorithms and ideas. They are, like all his work, a smooth blend of sense and science.

That is how a man transitions from improvisational jazz piano to a doctorate in applied mathematics.

That is how a man moves from producing Off-Broadway plays to studying the viscoelastic properties of carbon black filled SBR compounds.

That is how a man goes from almost being defeated by cancer to being one of its most formidable antagonists.

[Art by Hallie Bateman]