(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in our series spotlighting the start-ups that comprise Cohort 2 of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Innovation Crossroads” initiative. The companies are a little beyond the halfway point in the two-year program.)
Lux Semiconductors, led by Co-Founders Shane McMahon and Graeme Housser, is focused on delivering a new class of semiconductor substrates, ones that are flexible, large area, and low cost, to serve as a next generation platform.
That goal and advancing their research is what brought the start-up to the region as a participant in Cohort 2 of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” program. As McMahon explained in this late 2018 article on teknovation.biz, silicon is the primary platform for semiconductor devices, and a wafer is a thin slice of this semiconductor material that serves as the substrate for microelectronic devices built in and over the wafer.
“The silicon wafer is currently serving as the foundation for over 90 percent of electronic devices,” McMahon said. “It’s been a critical platform for device manufacturers.” That said, the young entrepreneur explained that “the electronics industry is now entering a new era, one that demands ultra-thin and flexible devices with more functionality and at lower cost.”
So, a little more than halfway through the two-year program, how is Lux Semiconductors progressing? Here are McMahon’s answers.
- When you were selected for the inaugural cohort of ORNL’s “Innovation Crossroads” program, how would you describe the state of your technology and where you were in standing-up a start-up? By May of 2018, we had reached a number of early technology development milestones. A rudimentary proof-of-concept system had been constructed to demonstrate Lux’s patent pending technique capable of recrystallizing amorphous silicon, and other semiconductors, into high quality polycrystalline films. Equipped with promising preliminary data, we then designed and built a more sophisticated prototype system to optimize and scale the semiconductor growth processes. At that time, although the prototype system was in place, additional funding was required to optimize the semiconductor growth processes and fabricate electronic devices.
- Now, a little more than halfway through the two-year experience, how would you answer the question? The “Innovation Crossroads” program, coupled with a National Science Foundation award, provided the necessary funding to move into small-scale material development using the company’s custom-built prototype system. After encountering numerous technical hurdles over the past 12 months, we will soon finalize semiconductor process optimization and conclude the material development phase of the technology development plan. The next key technical milestone will be the fabrication and testing of fundamental circuit elements, such as transistors, built directly into Lux’s silicon substrates. This effort will be the focus of the second year of the “Innovation Crossroads” program and will provide important performance data that potential customers are requesting.
- What have been the biggest changes and how has the “Innovation Crossroads” program helped with the progress that you’ve made? Despite only minor changes to the company’s technology development plan over the past year, the same cannot be said for the company’s business model. Lux has undergone a significant restructuring of its core business model since the inception of the “Innovation Crossroads” program, a shift that is the result of extensive customer interactions, deep market analysis, and technical capability assessments. As opposed to becoming a silicon substrate material supplier to electronic device manufacturers, Lux will instead operate as a semiconductor foundry that services the electronic manufacturing needs of fab-less companies and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). As such, Lux will manufacture and sell electronic circuits that are designed and marketed by fab-less companies and then sold to OEMs for system integration.
The Innovation Crossroads program helps to facilitate business model evolution and other non-technical progressions by surrounding us with an ecosystem of entrepreneurial advisers and investors, as well as by providing an annual travel budget that allows participants to engage key stakeholders in their target industry. It’s the programmatic benefits of “Innovation Crossroads,” coupled with program management that is highly effective at navigating the ORNL complex, that helps improve the odds of a participant’s commercial success in a space so strife with failure.
- What more do you expect/hope to accomplish before your two-year Fellowship ends in May 2020? On the technology front, we expect to fabricate and test transistors, diodes and other electronic devices as soon as the material development phase is complete. This subsequent device fabrication and testing phase will serve as a qualification of our semiconductor material and provide key performance data that will be showcased to industry partners and potential customers. Additionally, we will continue to focus on raising non-dilutive grant funding to support our future technology development efforts, as well as begin preparations to take on private investment by the conclusion of the “Innovation Crossroads” program.
- Will you be ready to take the technology to market or will you continue to have to further advance it? Given the breadth and depth of Lux’s technology roadmap, additional developments will need to be made before the company is ready to offer its electronics manufacturing services to the market. However, we do expect to reach a technical maturity that will allow us to pursue these development efforts in partnership with strategics through joint development agreements.
- How have you found the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region in terms of its support for tech-focused entrepreneurs? A supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem is a necessary ingredient for shaping and growing early stage technology ventures. Whether it’s through the “Innovation Crossroads” program itself, customer discovery support through I-Corps South, programs and guidance provided by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, or the number of other organizations and programs that exist throughout the community, it is clear how much the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region is committed to supporting tech-focused entrepreneurs.