Move over silicon
New Electronics article | By Neil Tyler
Neil Tyler talks to PragmatIC’s CEO, Scott White, a company looking to replace silicon chips with flexible integrated circuits.
PragmatIC Semiconductor is a specialist in ultra-low-cost flexible electronics and has developed flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) that are thinner than a human hair and can be embedded in a wide range of different objects where it’s not practical to use more conventional electronics.
The company has developed a branded range of products - ConnectIC – but can also help designers to create their own application-specific flexible devices by using its FlexIC Foundry service.
As Scott White, the company’s CEO, explained to New Electronics, “Our technology is being adopted by a growing base of global companies and we’re starting to address a very diverse set of markets such as consumer goods, retail, healthcare, pharmaceutical, gaming and security.”
White is an experienced and serial entrepreneur, and PragmatIC is his sixth technology venture to date.
Headquartered in Cambridge and with a growing manufacturing capability in County Durham the company has seen strong growth and is investing in new facilities and process engineering capabilities.
Our head count is fast approaching 250 people and we’ve been supported by venture funding and have a global base of investors. Our Series C funding round was a key inflection point for us and raised $90m,” said White. “After nearly twelve years we’re now able to demonstrate a mature technology and a reliable manufacturing process as we look to scale up the business.
PragmatIC was initially funded by management and from revenues from early customers, but UK government and EU grants also played a part.
“That source of funding was certainly influential in driving research and development,” added White.
White suggested that early-stage support from the UK government was good. “Early-stage support is in many respects world class, but it becomes more challenging when you look to commercialise an idea and that hasn’t really changed. When it comes to manufacturing, as there are fewer companies the risks tend to be greater, and the costs can be huge.” He continued, “The UK still seems unable to back ‘winners’ in the way they do in the US or the Far East and while there’s a recognition that has to change. As a company, we’ve been forced to generate funds from a very diverse investment community – there simply aren’t enough interested investors here in the UK.”
Despite that, White points out that the company has established several critical relationships with both investors and customers including the likes of Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), Arm – who last year were able to reproduce its M0 32-bit microcontroller using PragmatIC’s technology - and Avery Dennison, a materials science and packaging technology company.
“Their understanding of our technology and how it can be applied to their key markets has been crucial in validating our technology and pushing the boundaries,” according to White.
Focus on manufacturing
For PragmatIC it soon became apparent that it wouldn’t be enough to operate a licensing business model rather, to maximise the value of its technology, it would need to focus on taking it through to large-scale manufacturing and commercialisation.
“We needed to find the right investors to support that ambition and in the UK it’s comparatively rare for a tech company to develop a manufacturing capability,” conceded White.
“If you look at silicon, the UK has a strong design capability, but we lack the manufacturing capability to exploit that IP. Our aim was therefore to keep our IP in-house and develop a manufacturing process and we wanted to keep the value of the process here in the UK. If you look at silicon there’s a great diversity in terms of IP, but very few manufacturers.”
PragmatIC has developed a highly scalable manufacturing model for what White describes is a “cost-effective high-volume production of flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs).
“The process – FlexLogIC - is a fully automated FlexIC fabrication line that’s capable of delivering billions of circuits at a fraction of the capital investment and operating cost of a traditional silicon IC fab,” he explained. “This process includes all the process tools needed to deposit and pattern multiple high-quality material layers, integrated with a robotic wafer handling system inside a self-contained clean environment.”
According to White, all the material recipes, end-to-end process flows, in-line quality monitoring and feedback control loops are implemented within the equipment and automation software, to ensure reliable production without operator intervention.
“Critically, with this process production cycle times are less than one day, compared with several months for a typical silicon fab.”
It’s that time to market advantage and the speed of the production cycle that means that for the first time it’s within the reach of many new companies to embed electronics into everyday devices – from wearable consumer goods to packaging.
“Our ConnectIC family of flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) can be used to add connectivity to all sorts of everyday objects,” said White.
“We talk about the Internet of Everything, but our technology now makes that a reality. Our flexible integrated circuits make it possible to embed electronics, create more adaptable form factors, and all at a price point that makes commercial sense.”
According to White the company is focussed on enabling greater flexibility when it comes to where electronics can be placed.
We’re not looking to replace expensive microprocessors in lap-tops of smartphones but want to make it possible to add electronics to the thousands of different devices with which we interact daily. If we can make devices less complicated and less expensive, but make them more intelligent, then we all benefit.
White explained that the company wants to address four key areas including: interactivity; authenticity; traceability and sustainability.
“When we talk about interactivity, more companies are using NFC enabled readers and tags to develop a stronger, two-way communication between consumers and brands. They want to maintain brand visibility for longer.
“Authenticity is another key driver for our technology. More and more companies want to ensure proof of providence and prevent counterfeit products from entering the supply chain. Authenticity leads to traceability and the ability to optimise the management of the supply chain as well as controlling inventory in real time.”
All of these have been key drivers in terms of the adoption of the company’s flexible integrated circuits in terms of RFID and NFC deployments, but in the past few years the issue of sustainability has now become another important driver.
“Sustainability is critical for many companies and when it comes to packaging, they want to be clear as to how it is disposed of and, as an issue, sustainability has become a key buying criterion for many customers – they want to be sure they are doing the ‘right thing’.
“There are huge advantages in providing accurate identification, using technology to reduce waste and ensuring that packaging is recycled correctly,” added White.
Due to its compact footprint and self-contained design, the FlexLogIC process can be located wherever it is needed, allowing agile ‘just-in-time’ IC production to meet local demands while at the same time minimising inventory costs.
The company’s first FlexLogIC line is already in operation at its Sedgefield facility in County Durham, with additional lines being planned both within the UK and around the world.
“Our primary business model is as a foundry and while we have developed our own product line, we can offer a platform that will enable companies to develop new and more innovative products. The speed at which designs can be manufactured is a key differentiator and sets us apart from traditional silicon where the cost and huge time lags involved creates risk and stymies innovation,” White argues.
“With our platform tape-out can take a matter of weeks, and production can take place in a matter of days, even hours. This agile approach completely changes the way in which people operate, and we’re doing all of this on hardware. Customers of which we have upwards of 30, 15 of which are seen as strategic and could deliver annual revenues in excess of £10m a year, are now able to look at 5-6 tape-outs over a year.”
PragmatIC has certainly embraced the concept of ‘smart manufacturing’ which has a significantly smaller environmental impact.
“In time we could locate production facilities around the world alongside the operations of our customers. That will provide more resilience in terms of the supply chain, involving less shipping and a ‘just-in-time’ capability at individual sites,” says White.
“Looking to the future our technology will be able to address the requirement for millions, if not billions, of units and if you can scale production effectively and efficiently, you’ll save millions of pounds. Our aim is to develop a foundry process that will be identical around the world and that will enable engineering process support, via a global network and ecosystem.”
While these flexible electronic devices might not be able to deliver the complex performance currently associated with silicon the opportunities from an economic and market perspective are immense.