Feature: Move over silicon, hello gallium nitride

GaN

GaN could be the beginning of ‘Gallium Valley North’

It’s fitting that GaN Systems is suddenly growing at what feels like lightning speed.

The Kanata-based company is poised to become a leader in the burgeoning field of ultra-fast, highly efficient semiconductors that use gallium nitride rather than silicon, says president Girvan Patterson.

“We’ve been around about eight years, and the first five or so we say we were missionaries,” he says. “We were out explaining to people what gallium nitride is and what it was going to do for the world. That completely changed about two or three years ago, when suddenly the big guys – the carmakers, the television makers, the power supply makers – they all said, ‘OK, we get it now. Now we see where GaN’s going.’ They started coming to us and saying, ‘OK, what can you offer us?’”

Gallium nitride semiconductors convert 99 per cent of the energy they receive, compared with 95 per cent for those that use silicon. That might not seem like a huge difference, but Patterson says the new generation of semiconductors are faster and much more efficient.

That in turn has a wide range of benefits for a host of manufacturers. For example, gallium nitride semiconductors will help make flat-screen TVs even lighter and thinner and air conditioners more energy-efficient, he says.

GaN’s products could also have huge implications for the automotive industry, which Patterson calls “the huge holy grail of the business.”

For example, batteries used in current hybrid vehicles generate such intense heat the cars require separate coolant tanks. Because gallium nitride semiconductors bleed much less energy, coolant tanks would no longer be necessary.

The power switching market is currently worth about $59 billion, Patterson says, and he believes gallium nitride semiconductors will soon grab a $10-billion share of that total. As one of only a handful of companies in the world capable of producing the new technology, GaN is well-positioned to win a hefty chunk of that business, he adds.

“Suddenly, now it’s mainstream,” Patterson says. “No one’s questioning the future of power switching is going to be gallium nitride. It’s a huge opportunity. It’s just a question of how quickly we can ramp things up. We’re not a niche startup any more.”

Investors are clearly taking notice. GaN Systems, which previously landed two rounds of seed funding in 2011 and 2012, recently secured $20 million in series C financing from a group that was led by Montreal’s Cycle Capital Management and also included BDC Capital, Beijing-based Tsing Capital, Vancouver’s Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital and RockPort Capital of Boston.

The company, which has nearly tripled its headcount to 31 over the past three years, plans to use the newfound capital to ramp up its sales and marketing staff and hire more engineers to work with clients.

It began shipping prototypes to hundreds of potential customers last year and expects to have products on the market by the fall.

GaN Systems already has sales offices in Michigan, Germany, the U.K. and Japan, and is planning to soon open another in Taiwan, where the wafers for its transistors are manufactured.

Patterson says over the past eight years, the company has evolved from a fledgling outfit with six employees and a good idea to a “real producer” of technology that could revolutionize the semiconductor industry.

An electrical engineer by trade, he has had key roles in launching a number of technology firms over the past three decades, including Orcatech and Plaintree Systems. But none can match GaN Systems’ potential to disrupt the global marketplace, he says.  

“I’ve done a lot of startups in my career,” Patterson says, “but this is by far the most exciting of them all.”

SIDEBAR:

What the heck is gallium nitride?

Gallium nitride, or GaN, is a compound known for its incredibly high heat capacity and conductivity, making it an ideal material for semiconductors.

Its base element is gallium, a soft, silvery metal which isn’t found in nature but is a byproduct of the production of aluminum and zinc. In 2012, about 273 tonnes of gallium were produced around the world.

Over the past decade, manufacturers have begun using gallium nitride in products such as LED flashlights and Blu-ray Discs. But its commercial applications have yet to be fully exploited, says Girvan Patterson, the president of local semiconductor firm GaN Systems.

“It’s readily available,” he says. “It’s just learning how to harness it.”

Ottawa has played a key role in that process stretching back to the late 1990s, when Nortel manufactured early prototypes of gallium nitride transistors with help from the National Research Council.

“We’ve been doing it a long time here,” Patterson says. “We don’t have to go far to get some terrific people. It’s been a huge asset.”

Only about five companies worldwide are even attempting to produce gallium nitride transistors, he adds, largely because a specially equipped foundry is needed to create the compound. One of the rare facilities with that capacity just happens to be at the NRC, a short drive from GaN Systems’ headquarters in Kanata.

“We were one of the few companies that had the possibility of even (making) any when we started experimenting,” says Patterson. “It was fortuitous. We had the infrastructure presence here in Ottawa to do it and we had the opportunity and the motivation.”