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26 June, 2019 - 17:15 By Tony Quested

Cambridge University power electronics spin-out targets $30bn market

A Cambridge University power electronics spin-out is poised to exploit a $30 billion global market after clinching its first major financial round.

Cambridge GaN Devices told Business Weekly that the University of Cambridge Enterprise Fund VI, managed by Parkwalk Advisors, has backed the transformative round for the fledgling business, which is developing innovative high-performance Gallium Nitride power electronic devices.

Cambridge GaN Devices (CGD) is a 2016 spin-out from the High Voltage Microelectronics and Sensors lab at the University of Cambridge Engineering Department. 

The two founders Florin Udrea and Giorgia Longobardi have been working on efficient power electronics based on GaN for more than 10 years. 

The lab has a successful track record of commercialising innovation and Florin Udrea has a long and pioneering career in power electronics design and successful commercialisation of his research. 

He was behind the success of Cambridge CMOS Sensors; a Cambridge spin out in an adjacent technology that was backed by Parkwalk and Cambridge Enterprise to a successful trade sale exit in 2016.

Gallium Nitride (GaN) has long been considered a potentially superior material to silicon for use in the rich 600V power electronics market due to its physical properties such as high electron mobility, high breakdown field and low on-state resistance. 

Higher electron mobility means that GaN power devices can operate at much higher frequencies than silicon-based solutions, leading to smaller and faster circuits. 

The low on-state resistance and high breakdown field are behind the high efficiency and smaller from factor of the power device.

The challenge the power electronics industry has faced to date has been creating GaN devices that are stable and can deliver the high frequency performance without any faults in the system. 

Existing GaN devices are subject to unwanted oscillations when switching from on- to off-state that affect both their efficiency and their ability to operate with a stable state of ‘off’, which is a critical requirement for many applications in power electronics.

CGD has developed a High Electron Mobility Transistor (HEMT) which overcomes these problems and could therefore lead to faster adoption of GaN in the power electronics industry. 

The company’s device incorporates an innovative and patented technology which allows them to have stable switching behaviour and a reliable gate terminal – an ideal combination to replace Silicon-based devices. 

This has been demonstrated in early prototypes and the company is now working on producing volume samples with major supply chain partners. The company aims to develop this model to ultimately become a fabless semiconductor manufacturer of GaN power electronics devices.

Longer term, CGD is also working on patented designs to allow much higher power density of their devices and deliver the high-efficiency and smaller form-factor of GaN devices also in higher power applications such as Electric vehicles inverters. 

This innovation would further enhance the performance of its devices versus Silicon and existing GaN solutions.

CGD has eight main patents relating to GaN power devices. The first patent covers the novel design which is critical to allowing the device to operate at higher frequencies without any faults.

Four more patents cover the integration to the main design of control and logic circuits for monitoring and preventing any fault behaviour during switching. Finally, three more patents cover the higher power density design and solutions for using GaN devices in harsh environments.

The company has also adopted the strategy of strengthening even further its IP proposition based on the know-how and methods of the core team.

The market for power electronics devices is very large and growing; forecast to reach $30bn by 2022. These devices are used in a very wide range of applications from power supplies for consumer devices to much larger devices for charging electric vehicles.

GaN power devices are in production today but their stability issues mean that they are restricted to use only in niche applications. 

Their advantages in terms of higher switching speeds, smaller size and higher efficiency, however, mean that their use is growing rapidly (more than 90 per cent CAGR forecast to 2022). 

CGD devices, which overcome these stability problems, should open up the market for GaN power devices even faster and see their use in more mainstream applications. Such devices could take a substantial share of the $30bn global market in the future. 

Over the longer run it is possible that GaN could replace silicon as the dominant technology in the 600V segment of power electronics.

Validation of the technology, and the market opportunity, can be demonstrated by the significant engagement the company has already achieved with some of the largest global companies in the semiconductor foundry and packaging supply chain. 

This has enabled the company to develop quickly and be in a position to be able to offer engineering samples to global customers as part of this funding round.

The team is led by Florin Udrea and Dr Giorgia Longobardi, the two founders behind the CGD technology. This funding round will allow expansion of the core engineering team to support further product development and deeper engagement with the supply chain and global customers.

CGD’s innovative and patented GaN devices offer some significant and valuable customer benefits in a large and growing market. The company’s early success in establishing a blue-chip supply chain for early manufacturing of these devices is clear validation of the potential for the CGD solution. 

The lead founder, and his department, has a strong record of innovation and successful commercialisation and early engagement with customers has been promising. This funding round should support expansion of the team and volume production to support customer trials with global customers.

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