IM this article to a friend!

June 6, 2004

Microscope maker turns hobby into millions

From:, MI - Jun 6, 2004

Troy firm supplies universities, labs around the world

By Tom Henderson / Special to The Detroit News

Adam Kollin didn't start out to build microscopes that could look at atoms. He just wanted to help his deaf grandmother know when someone was knocking at her front door.

A tinkerer by nature, Kollin built and patented a flashing-light device to alert her to visitors after he graduated in 1978 with a political science degree from the University of Michigan.

That led him to form a company called Sonic Alert, a detour from his plans for law school. A request from a cousin who worked at General Motors Corp. led him on yet another path.

Today, he is founder and president of RHK Technology Inc. of Troy, which makes scanning tunneling microscopes and control systems to operate other microscopes for researchers around the world.

"Rather than go to law school, I decided to become a productive member of society," he jokes.

Sonic Alert, now a division of RHK Technology, produces devices to help the hearing impaired. It accounts for about 20 percent of the company's revenue. The RHK division accounts for the rest. RHK Technology has 30 employees.

It sells its microscopes, priced from $250,000 to $1.2 million, to universities, national research labs and companies in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. The microscopes help researchers better understand chemistry at the molecular level as they build things with tinier and tinier features.

The scanning tunneling microscope operates on a principal of quantum mechanics known as electron tunneling and uses a tiny stylus that "reads" the surface of an object in Braille-like fashion from a distance of two to three atom diameters, allowing extremely tiny resolutions.

RHK's top-end microscope works in ultra high vacuums and at temperature ranging from 30 degrees above absolute zero to 1,000 degrees Celcius.

Kollin says his biggest customer is the University of California at Berkeley. RHK recently sold two ultra high vacuum microscopes to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in Maryland. Other customers include Sandia National Labs, Stanford, MIT, Harvard and the University of California at Davis. Half of his customers are overseas, he said.

RHK began after a cousin, a GM research scientist, told Kollin that if he could create a high-resolution spectrometer to help study what was going on inside catalytic converters, GM would buy it.

So Kollin and one of Sonic Alert's electrical engineers built a device, GM bought it and RHK (the initials of Kollin's first wife) was born.

Kollin declined to release specific financial figures for the privately held RHK, but said revenues were up 20 percent for the fiscal year ending April 30. "April was our best month ever," he said.

About 75 percent of the RHK division's revenues come from selling $50,000 control systems that operate competitors' microscopes.

Dr. Gang-yu Liu, a chemist and researcher in nanotechnology at UC-Davis, first began using RHK microscopes when she was at Wayne State University 10 years ago.

She says that when she began her research at the nano level — it takes about 100,000 nanometers to stretch across the width of a human hair — she found that "only RHK Technology was able to meet all the technical requirements."

She says those requirements include an ability to image individual atoms, molecules, DNA and proteins; to perform in various environments; be able to accommodate various research platforms, including hard inorganic, soft polymeric and sticky biological samples; and be able to work with the kind of custom-built hardware university researchers are known for cobbling together.

"New chemistry was discovered because of the high performance of SPM (scanning probe microscope) products by RHK Technology," she said.

Miquel Salmeron, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, is a big fan of RHK.

"With RHK instruments, we have imaged, moved and broken atoms and molecules with exquisite precision. We have also produced new imaging techniques," said Salmeron, the principal investigator of a research group studying surface chemistry and atomic-scale friction.

Tom Henderson is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.

Copyright © 2004 The Detroit News.