Look Out Silicon Valley, Here Comes Gallium Beach

EPC tobak

Alex Lidow is a man on a mission. His Southern California company, Efficient Power Conversion or EPC, is using Gallium Nitride (GaN) chips instead of silicon for exciting applications, from wireless power charging and 4G LTE to augmented reality and autonomous vehicles.

But can this hot new technology ultimately displace the ubiquitous silicon chip in a $300 billion semiconductor market?

When I first heard from Lidow’s PR guy, I was admittedly skeptical. After all, this was the same man who was ousted from International Rectifier (IR) over some accounting irregularities and was later sued by the company for intellectual property theft (the suit has since been settled and IR was acquired by Infineon for $3 billion in January, 2015).

But Dr. Lidow does have major tech cred, at least he did. He received a PhD in applied physics from Stanford, was an early pioneer in power transistors and co-invented the technology that made IR an industry powerhouse, so I was curious to hear his side of the story and learn what the future holds for GaN technology.

I wasn’t disappointed. Lidow’s story would make a pretty juicy mini-drama.

His father Eric ran IR for nearly half a century until turning it over to Alex and his brother Derek in 1995. Derek left four years later to found market research firm iSupply, leaving his younger brother to run the show until 2007, when he was ousted in what Alex calls a board coup that also claimed his CFO and head of global marketing and sales.

But that was just the beginning of Alex’s problems. He was also mired in a protracted divorce with a restraining order that froze the couple’s “disputed assets,” including his IR stock. The divorce wouldn’t be finalized and the order lifted until 2012. In the mean time, Lidow’s reputation and finances were in tatters.

It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention and, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who better exemplifies both of those truths than Lidow.

Just before his demise at IR, he had begun work on a new type of power transistor made from a very thin layer of GaN grown on a silicon wafer. Believing this new technology could surpass its silicon counterpart but knowing he had to find a way to bootstrap its development with minimal capital, Lidow and two other PhDs with experience in GaN – Joe Cao and Robert Beach – formed EPC and got to work.

The three founders came up with a novel design for a power transistor that was both smaller and faster than those based on silicon. And Lidow found a Taiwan-based manufacturing partner, Archie Huang of Hermes-Epitek, to make the devices on an older production line using fully amortized capital equipment. As a result, the chips are also less expensive to make than silicon. Huang also became an investor in the company.

EPC would spend the next eight years perfecting and marketing their chips and today boasts 700 customers, including a veritable who’s who of electronic product manufacturers such as Google, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and, rumor has it, a certain iconic consumer device company from Cupertino, Calif.

According to Lidow, the first and biggest market opportunity they focused on was envelope tracking for millions of 4G LTE base-stations.

Another exciting application is Light Detection and Ranging or LiDAR, which uses laser pulses to detect and identify nearby objects with a resolution of several inches. EPC’s GaN devices are used in LiDAR systems for Google’s self-driving cars, Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset and autonomous drones.

The third and perhaps most groundbreaking opportunity for GaN is in wireless charging to eliminate power cords. Once the receiver and transmitter standards are developed, the technology will be used to wirelessly charge smartphones, tablets, computers, anything that plugs into a home outlet, and eventually, even electric vehicles.

Lidow explained that electric buses are already being tested in Korea, receiving wireless charges at bus stops – requiring just one minute of charge for one kilometer of travel. Someday, you won’t have to plug in your electric car. Just park near a charger, grab a cappuccino, and voila, you’re ready to go.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that silicon has already had a fifty-year learning curve whereby transistor density has doubled every two years, according to Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore’s eponymous observation known as “Moore’s Law.” The aging technology’s scalability is starting to bump up against a wall of physical limitations.

But for GaN, it’s still early days. This promising new technology that’s already faster, smaller and less expensive than silicon is just at the beginning of its own economies of scale. As Lidow says, first power conversion, then analog chips, and someday, the world.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

There are quite a few startups and existing semiconductor companies working on GaN technology. And highly integrated low-voltage devices like processor and memory chips are still a long way off. But it’s clear that GaN has a bright future and the ever-tenacious Alex Lidow, now 61, is on a personal quest to spread the word. Godspeed.