MILPITAS, Calif. -- After years of research and development, foundry startup FlexICs Inc. here will soon begin shipping samples of the world's first semiconductors fabricated on six-inch plastic substrates.
FlexICs--which bills itself as the world's first and only "semiconductor-on-plastics foundry''--plans to sample its initial chips in October, said Magnus Ryde, chairman and chief executive of the Milpitas startup.
The two-year-old company counts a number of financial backers, including giant Intel Corp. It is now ready to begin producing plastic integrated circuits in its fab using 2-micron process technology after announcing the opening of a pilot production facility during the summer (see June 26 story ).
Despite the use of "trailing-edge" fab gear and processes to make its products, the company's technology is new and "revolutionary," said Ryde, who was formerly president of the U.S. subsidiary of silicon foundry giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC).
Privately-held FlexICs has developed a ultra-low temperature semiconductor process to fabricate ICs on conventional plastic. The technology is capable of producing polysilicon thin-filmtransistors (TFTs) on six-inch plastic substrates, which are processed at temperatures less than 100 degrees C.
This technology is expected to enable the development of plastics-based, lightweight displays, which could be integrated with liquid-crystal display (LCD) driver ICs, memories, or other chips on the substrate, according to Ryde. Applications include cellular phones, instruments, hand-held devices, lighting systems, PDAs, and even wall TVs, he told SBN.
"Our first market is flat-panel displays," said the long-time chip veteran, who joined FlexICs last year.
While some industry analysts believe FlexICs faces major challenges in bringing its technology to market, the company claims to have accomplished several key milestones--and some credibility--in recent months.
"Initially, people were highly skeptical about our technology," Ryde acknowledged. "Over the last three or four months, the market has changed. Now, our customers can't wait to get their hands on our products," he said in an interview at the company's headquarters.
FlexICs is also hoping to leverage the credibility of the foundry model to proliferate its technology in the marketplace. The company claims it will not develop products under its own logo, but rather it will produce designs on a foundry basis for chip makers and systems manufacturers.
"We do not intend to sell 'vertical' application products under our brand name," he said. "Instead, we will encourage our customers to design new products based on our technology," he added.
Analysts are impressed. "FlexICs has a fascinating idea and they have a great team in place, along with some apparently good funding," said David Mentley, who tracks the LCD market for Stanford Resources Inc. of San Jose.
However, the market that FlexICs is addressing--the small-screen LCD-based market--"is about to get very crowded, especially the
low-temp poly segment," Mentley said. "Any new entrant...is just going to add to the bloodbath," he said.
"But if FlexICs can truly come in with a very high-performance backplane that can be made on a low investment line and at very
low cost, it will have a clear advantage over the other vendors
who are essentially following each other," he added.
Indeed, FlexICs has come a long way in a short time. Its origins can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded an "IC-on-plastics" technology program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The government-sponsored lab was trying to develop lightweight, IC-on-plastic LCDs for military applications. "They were developing products for the soldier of the future," according to Ryde.
In 1999, four engineers from Lawrence Livermore Labs left the organization to commercialize the technology by forming FlexICs. Last year, the company licensed the patents from Lawrence Livermore Labs.
At the same time, FlexICs obtained two rounds of funding, including from Intel's venture capital arm. In total, the company has raised $23.3 million in funding.
FlexICs is also currently seeking another round of funding to develop what it calls a "roll-to-roll" manufacturing line. The "roll-to-roll" line resembles a newspaper printing plant, in which plastic rolls are fed into specialized chip-equipment, thereby producing ICs on plastic substrates in mass volumes.
The company does not expect to develop this radical "roll-to-roll" line until 2004. In the meantime, the company will make its products in a more conventional fab, which opened in June. The facility has 18,000 square feet of space with a Class 100 clean room that's equipped with special tools for making ICs on plastic substrates.
Next month, the company will achieve its biggest milestone: it will begin sampling its first chips on plastic substrates for customers. And the possibilities are intriguing for chip makers and OEMs alike.
In one application, for example, the company could develop a plastic-based display that integrates the LCD driver ICs on the same unit. This product could replace traditional glass-based TFT displays, thereby reducing the costs for OEMs, said Shyam Dujari, vice president of marketing for FlexICs in an interview.
Eventually, the company will develop nonvolatile ferroelectric memories and other chips lines on plastic substrates as well, Dujari said.
But the jury is still out on the company. "It might be a promising technology, but FlexICs still has an uphill battle," said analyst Martin Reynolds of Dataquest Inc. of San Jose.
Reynolds believes that other technologies hold more promise in the market, most notably organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). Also known as an organic electroluminescent device (OEL), OLEDs are thin-film, light-emitting devices that typically consist of a series of organic layers between two electrical contacts.
Initially developed for display applications, OLEDs offer bright, colorful images with a wide viewing angle and low power. OLEDs are commonly constructed on glass, but can also be fabricated on plastic and other flexible substrate films.
According to FlexICs, however, ICs on plastic substrates are superior to OLEDs in terms of electron mobility. Its technology also has advantages over mainstream LCD TFTs in terms of electron mobility, not to mention the overall weight of the material.
In its process, FlexICs claims to have a mobility performance of 40-400 cm (square)/Vs, according to the company. This compares to 0.1-5 cm (square)/Vs for organic material like OLEDs and 0.5-1 cm (square)/Vs for traditional TFT LCDs.
In any case, some are bullish about the company's prospects. "FlexICs' success will come down to its ability to implement its novel processes," according to a report from Display Search Inc. of Austin, Tex. "By controlling these novel steps, its foundry model should result in strong demand and potentially a significant premium," the report said.