SW: Great to be speaking with you today, Michael. We’ve seen some recent announcements in the media from Cambrios. Can you summarize for us what has been going on over the past year at Cambrios?
MK: The biggest thing that happened last year, arguably the biggest thing that has ever happened to our young company, is that a smartphone came on the market that contained our ClearOhm™ transparent electrode as part of its multi-touch screen. The touch sensor for this phone was manufactured by the touch panel leader Nissha Printing of Kyoto and the touch sensor was manufactured by Synaptics of Santa Clara. This was an incredible moment for us. We will have lots of things to celebrate at Cambrios in the future, but you can only celebrate your first commercial product once.
Other developments include the establishment of significant commercial relationships with hugely important companies including Toray Advanced Films, that announced a product line of films having a ClearOhm™ transparent conductive layer, and Synaptics, that will be working with end customers in the touch sensor supply chain to produce reference designs for multi-touch sensors that make use of ClearOhm™ material. Toray Advanced Films & Synaptics are major suppliers to Touch Sensor manufacturers. We also raised a significant amount of equity capital, most of it from strategic corporate investors – companies that are actively working to build a business around ClearOhm™ material.
In other applications areas, thanks to contracts with the Departments of Energy and Defense, we have made significant progress in adapting our material for organic LED lighting devices and CIGS-based photovoltaic cells.
We are actively selling our ClearOhm™ material and ClearOhm™-coated PET film. Revenues are rapidly increasing. We’re hoping to break even in 2012.
SW: Your first major commercial product is a transparent electrode. Why transparent electrodes?
MK: We started out as a technology company seeking a product idea. After working on a number of applications, we judged that the best use of our technology would be in the creation of a high quality, lower cost option for making a transparent electrode. It’s a very large market with big needs. Nanomarkets, LLC, estimated last year that the 2010 market would be around $2.5 billion. This is a huge size for a single material. As a small company, we have to focus. The transparent conductor market allows us to do that with respect to product development and manufacturing, and still have a big opportunity. In addition, we were able to develop a high performance manufacturing method and we can address large parts of that market ourselves. There is significant and growing customer pull for a new material and that’s always important for a young company. That’s important because while we feel good about taking a big technology risk, we don’t want to face market risk that could delay the growth of our business. Finally, even though the market is large now based on Flat Panel Displays and touch screens, its growth will accelerate based on new applications such as solid state lighting, e-paper displays, and thin film photovoltaics. And for these applications, the incumbent material, indium tin oxide (ITO), is not a great choice.
SW: Tell us more about your nano-enabled transparent electrode technology. What makes it special and innovative relative to other electrodes in the marketplace?
MK: Our ClearOhm™ coating material creates a transparent electrode that is not at all like a transparent conductive oxide (TCO). TCOs like ITO are created by a high vacuum sputtering process and produce a continuous ceramic film that has relatively low conductivity. By comparison, we manufacture highly crystalline, high aspect ratio, nanowires made of silver, the most conductive element. Silver is almost 100 times more conductive than ITO. As a result, a film of equivalent electrical performance to ITO has almost 100 times less material on the surface of the substrate. We formulate our nanowires into a suspension tuned to work with off-the-shelf wet coating manufacturing equipment already used in electronics factories. Wet coating is much less expensive than vacuum sputtering. In depositing the coating suspension on a substrate we form a nanowire mesh through which electrons can percolate and create a current across even very large substrates – we currently coat our ClearOhm™ coating material on rolls of plastic film that are more than 1 meter wide and kilometers long.
Because so little material is on the surface, the resulting film is more transparent. It has a better color than ITO films of equivalent performance, and because it is not a ceramic material, the film is completely bendable. It is intrinsically less expensive, and the process benefits can be large. It won’t be long before the material can be printed in very fine features. That could eliminate expensive photo-patterning steps. Finally, we can achieve much higher conductivity on film than is possible with ITO, and this is crucial for emerging display markets.
In short, ClearOhm™ material produces just what the industry wants in technology evolution: the opportunity to have higher performance at lower cost.
SW: What role does the science of nanotechnology play in Cambrios’ transparent electrode?
MK: Cambrios scientists have drawn on the science of nanotechnology to create accurate computer models of how different aspects of the silver nanowires and suspensions of these particles quantitatively contribute to the performance of the resulting film. By comparing the actual performance of the materials to the models, great progress can be made. As with many areas of nanotechnology, there are surprising effects that force us to adjust our view of how our nanowires interact with things like light, heat, chemical attack, etc. In some ways, these surprises can become a commercial advantage because discoveries are made constantly that contribute to our growing intellectual property portfolio. On some days, it’s hard to convince oneself that newly discovered complexities are a good thing.
SW: What have been the major challenges of getting your transparent electrode technology commercialized?
MK: The electronics industry is very conservative when it comes to changes in component materials. Unlike a product such as photoresist or CMP slurries used in the semiconductor industry, our material ends up as part of the final device. As a result, qualification requirements are rigorous and time consuming. It is always an advantage if the customer’s manufacturing process need not change at all, but this is rare. The bar for performance is very high – a low cost, low quality solution is not generally what customers are seeking. And the list of specifications is very, very long. Your new material needs to pass each one of them. And once the material is engineered into a device, there is an opportunity for negative interactions with other materials. So the material has to qualify separately with each customer in the supply chain. In the case of our coated film, it had to pass qualification tests as a film, in the touch sensor, in the touch module, and in the smartphone. Since each step involves weeks of reliability testing, this can be a big challenge.
The other major issue is displacing an incumbent material that people have confidence in using, even though they are dissatisfied with it. It’s a necessary step and it’s difficult. However, since ClearOhm™ material has been qualified and commercially proven, people have begun innovating and finding applications for which the conventional solutions do not work at all. We look forward soon to being the incumbent ourselves.
SW: What types of applications are well-suited to Cambrios’ transparent electrodes?
MK: We believe that ClearOhm™ material technology can be adapted to all of the current transparent electrode applications. These include liquid crystal displays, touch screens, e-paper displays, OLED lighting, OLED displays, and thin film photovoltaics.
SW: We’ve heard a lot about OLED’s and nanotech. Do you foresee major penetration of OLED technology in the market over the next several years?
MK: We have several customers pursuing the adoption of ClearOhm™ transparent electrodes for OLED devices, both for displays and lighting. The material should be able to fit into existing design ideas for those products.
SW: Can you shed more light on what role Cambrios might play in OLEDs and the role of nanotech?
MK: People have been frustrated with transparent conductive oxide electrodes used for OLEDs. TCOs have a high index of refraction and this decreases the light output and distorts the color of OLEDs. By comparison, the refractive index of ClearOhm™ layers can be tuned and preliminary evidence has confirmed the prediction that light efficiency can be substantially enhanced with this strategy alone. This feature is strictly dependent on being able to use the most conductive element in the form of a nanowire to create a coating material.
SW: Tell us more about Cambrios’ technology and the role it might play in the evolution of thin film photo voltaics.
MK: Light management is obviously important in photovoltaics as well. One needs to optimize transparency and, in some modalities, use functional layers like the electrode to increase light scattering so photons have more opportunities to encounter the light absorbing active material. The structure of ClearOhm™ material presents the opportunity to dissociate conductivity and light management properties and optimize each independently. In addition to providing a lower cost electrode solution, we hope to provide that a ClearOhm™ electrode can offer higher efficiencies in some cases.
SW: One last question for you today, Michael. What other nano-enabled technologies is Cambrios working on and what should we expect to see from the company in the future?
MK: We have a big agenda in the transparent conductive film area and if we capture as big a fraction of those as we hope, that nano-enabled product will remain who we are in the foreseeable future. However, as our business develops, it would be natural for us to find other electronic material products that we could offer to the same customers in the consumer electronics, lighting, or solar industries. Given our technological assets, it would be surprising if none of the new innovations were nano-enabled.
SW: Thanks again for your time, Michael. We wish you and your colleagues at Cambrios all the best in the future.