"It’s like a point and shoot camera," says Sang-il Park, CEO of Park Systems, drawing an analogy between the operation of AFMs and the daguerreotype process used to make photographs in the nineteenth century. This required large cumbersome instruments and a great deal of expertise to operate in comparison with the cameras found on, say, mobile phones today. According to Park, this latest release from Park Systems provides a similar advance in terms of ease of use.

AFM systems "feel" the topography of surfaces with a nanoscale tip much like the needle of a record player feels the grooves of a track in the vinyl. To avoid damaging the surface being imaged many AFM systems now operate in a "non-contact" mode. Here the tip oscillates above the surface at a resonant frequency that is very sensitive to its distance from the surface, as a result of Van der Waals forces, dipole-dipole interactions and electrostatic forces.

The extraordinary level of precision in AFM data is achieved by balancing operational parameters, such as the height of the tip above the surface, and the gain in feedback loops that adjust the height. Getting these parameters right can be tricky, demanding a high level of AFM experience and expertise.

"In the early days industry didn’t like AFM because of the number of artefacts," says Park. He feels that the new software provides the equivalent of a Park Systems expert within the programming, removing the technical hurdles for operating the system at its full potential.

Democratizing AFM technology

Motivated by a desire to make AFM a more accessible tool for researchers, Park set up Park Scientific Instruments in 1988 to commercialize the technology for the first time in the world. In 1997, he sold Park Scientific Instruments to Thermo Spectra and came back to Korea to set up his second venture, Park Systems. The company has introduced a number of improvements in its technology over the years, such as True Non-Contact mode and their decoupled scan system, for greater accuracy, repeatability, reliability and tip life.

"At the time, a lot of AFM systems were using piezoelectric tubes for the tips to allow 3D motion, but this is not ideal because you get cross talk," says Park. The new generation of AFM from Park Systems used tips with separate mobility in the x, y and z directions, making the systems more reliable. "I have been active in the field for over 30 years, which means we have a lot of knowledge to draw on for improvements," he added.

Negotiating the valley of death

Park Systems began as a typical Silicon Valley start-up and Park was fortunate to have good mentors in his early days at Park Scientific Instruments. Yet the chasm separating great technology in academia from successful commerce in industry – nicknamed the "valley of death" – is famous among start-up companies. So what were the main challenges when creating a business selling AFM technology commercially?

nanotechweb.org that in hindsight, competitors of Park Systems probably had the advantage in some respects, adding, “At both Park Scientific Instruments and Park Systems, our strength has been technology and our weakness has been marketing and financial resources compared with our competitors."

While confident in Park Systems’ core technology, Park emphasizes that "a good product will not sell itself". His tip to new start-ups? "It is important to find the right market. To become a good technology, it has to be useful."