MicroLEDs are progressing on all fronts. Investments are increasing. Alliances and partnerships are multiplying. Dozens of large corporations and startups have presented prototypes. The first commercial products are hitting the market in 2021.
In the longer term, bringing microLEDs from the fringe to the mainstream will require mastering a broad range of disruptive technologies. These range from epitaxy and chip design to mass transfer, color conversion, and repair. As detailed in Yole Développement’s “MicroLED Displays – Intellectual Property Landscape and Analysis 2021” report, entering the microLED industry also implies navigating a complex and increasingly crowded intellectual property landscape. The landscape is full of potential pitfalls, but also opportunities to shop around for the best technologies.
On May 20th, Nanosys, a pioneer and leading developer and producer of Quantum Dots (QD) announced the acquisition of, a high profile microLED company with a solid intellectual property portfolio. glō has spent over $200M developing its technology, including epitaxy, chip design and mass transfer. Yole Développement display analysts Eric Virey and Zine Bouhamri talked with Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove about the company’s rationale for the acquisition and what it means for its long-term strategy and the microLED and display industries.
Yole Développement (YD): First, could you introduce yourself and Nanosys to our readers?
Jason Hartlove (JH): Sure, my name is Jason Hartlove and I am the President and CEO here at Nanosys. Nanosys is the world’s leading supplier of QD materials and technology to the display market. We created the market for QDs and today our technology can be found in over 35 million consumer products, in everything from 7” tablets to 98” TVs. This year, we expect to ship over 15 million incremental units to the market. Among those will be the first ever QD-OLED displays. It’s an exciting time for the growth and development of Quantum Dot technology and now microLEDs as well.
YD: What are the motivations for this acquisition?
JH: The next generation of display devices are going to need to deliver a totally different set of performance criteria, orders of magnitude beyond technologies in the market today. For applications like Augmented Reality (AR) to be successful we’re going to need displays that can produce over 100,000 nits at 10,000 ppi in a 0.1” display, for example. There’s just no path for Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) or organic LEDs (OLEDs) to get there so we see a critical role for microLED to play in enabling these new applications for the display industry.
One of the challenges for microLED has been manufacturability. Due to a variety of issues, it has been impossible for anyone to produce small, bright, uniform pixels at pitches below 5 microns – especially for red. Those ultra small pixels are really needed for microLED to be successful because you need the resolution and, for larger panels like TVs, you need small pixels to help reduce the bill-of-material to make the economics work.
The QD Color Conversion technology we first developed for QD-OLED displays is very enabling for microLED. By starting from a single-color blue or ultraviolet (UV) microLED emitter and patterning our red and green QDs on the devices, we can help solve the challenges that have been holding microLED back.
So why glō? There are a few things I would point to. First, glō has world class epi and device capabilities. So, in terms of their ability to bring solutions to generate photons and get them out of the device, we’re right there with the best of the best. Second, we have full device integration capabilities and a very unique transfer capability that was developed by glō. That allows us to transfer LEDs onto backplanes at very fine pitch, with high speed and low defectivity all at low temperature. This is critical for ensuring the xGaN LED and backplane materials, whether that is glass or silicon, have highly reliable interconnects.
By bringing together these unique capabilities– the quantum dot materials for color conversion, the epi and device capability and full device integration– in one organization, we can really accelerate the time to market for microLED.
YD: Any comments on how Nanosys financed the acquisition?
JH: We have chosen not to discuss these details at this time.
YD: Had Nanosys and glō already been collaborating prior the acquisition?
JH: Nanosys has been collaborating with glō for several years. We had first-hand experience of glō’s unique capabilities. This is one of the key reasons we decided to accelerate our work by bringing the two teams together.
YD: What can we expect in terms of the integration of glō into Nanosys? Are you moving the teams and equipment under the same roof?
JH: The glō team will remain at their current site for now as we continue to evaluate all of the options. We’re moving fast and are already hard at work, collaborating on a new generation of products. For now, the time lost in decommissioning and moving the toolset, which can take months, probably makes it impractical to bring the teams together under one roof. Fortunately for us, they are right here in Silicon Valley with us, only 15 minutes down the road in Sunnyvale.
YD: What does this acquisition mean in term of your strategy and business model? Nanosys currently derives revenue from both the manufacturing and sales of QD materials, as well as from the licensing of its key intellectual property (IP). Will this strategy also apply to glō’s IP assets? Will Nanosys become a microLED display manufacturer, a technology provider, or both?
JH: As you well know, there is no microLED market today to speak of. We want to do all we can to ensure that the market is created and grows robustly.
There is a great analogy here and lesson learned from our quantum dot experience. Our technology is in more than 35 million homes and offices today. But when we started, there were no quantum dots used in displays, or really any other volume applications. We could make quantum dots but they were unstable and very expensive. We had to innovate on the materials, but in order to do so, we had to have a target form factor. Necessity is the mother of invention, and so we developed the Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF). This gave us a target system for integration of the quantum dots. We had no idea how to integrate the quantum dots into polymers. We started with a thermally cured resin, which we coated on barrier films and made a laminated sandwich. This gave us the stability we needed and we made lab samples. We showed it to industry and no one wanted to touch it because it was was terribly unmanufacturable. So we had to develop manufacturing solutions. The quantum dots were completely incompatible with the epoxy, so we had to encapsulate them in a silicon emulsion that we mixed into the epoxy. The emulsion wasn’t stable, so we had to figure out the right surfactants and stabilizers. The epoxy needed really slow thermal curing so we developed UV-assisted cross linkers that didn’t kill the quantum dots. There were mechanical issues such as shrinkage leading to non-uniformity, coating issues, color variation. We had to resolve all these issues ourselves. We built the first production coating line for making QDEF. It was in Cleveland, Ohio. I never wanted to make optical films. But we had to solve these issues. And in the process, we developed a lot of technology. Which we license to industry.
Having solved the issues, we showed roll-to-roll coated QDEF in a 47” TV at the Society for Information Display (SID) meeting in 2011 and won Best in Show. At that point, 3M looked at what we had done. We were able to work out an arrangement with them whereby they became the first volume manufacturer of QDEF. In 2013 we had our first design win with QDEF from 3M and our quantum dots in the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX. Since then, we’ve innovated new resins, improved the stability of our quantum dots to a point where they no longer need barrier films and developed more than 12 other partners who make quantum dot films and components for display OEMs.
Why is this a relevant analogy? There are so many integration issues in making microLED into a successful commercial technology. Who is going to be able to solve them? We think we can make a big contribution here. Ultimately, what will we provide to our partners and what will they do to make microLED a successful platform for AR, Heads Up Displays (HUDs), TV and other applications is yet to be determined. But I do not believe that we can create the microLED success story on our own, nor can any other single company. There needs to be an ecosystem developed just as we did with QDs.
YD: Are you planning to focus on specific applications? What is your timeframe?
JH: We believe that microLED has a few very unique value propositions. These are brightness and pitch. You cannot pattern OLEDs down to 1µm and you cannot get more than 20k nits out of OLED. Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) and LCDs can’t get the brightness up either. For direct view, OLED may be a good solution. It’s a success story in watches and in VR headsets so far. 2000ppi is more than adequate and 1000 nits is also. But there are applications where that is not good enough and it never will be. We are very focused on these areas.
YD: glō achieved significant results in terms of native green and red GaN microLED chip efficiency. Do you foresee using QD color conversion in all applications?
JH: Color conversion is enabling below a certain size of microLED. Above that, RGB direct emission can be very attractive, especially given our demonstrated capabilities. Where that breakpoint is exactly remains to be precisely determined but we believe there is room in the market for both approaches. There are also monochrome applications and hybrid implementations that may still favor direct emission vs color conversion.
YD: What are the remaining challenges for implementing QD color conversion in microLEDs? How is Nanosys hoping to tackle them?
JH: Light extraction is an area we are focused on. The physical implementation and processes to do so across the array are another, for example how to do the patterning in the presence of other structures for the microLED. It’s easy to draw the cartoon but the actual implementation to ensure a nicely uniform radiation pattern given the dimensions creates opportunities for us to innovate in our material system for processability as well as at the device level. For example, we just announced a new heavy metal free green with a high absorption cross section and very narrow Full Width Half Maximum (FWHM) at the SID meeting that we developed for this kind of color conversion, where we need a very thin layer of QDs which absorb all the stimulus photons.
YD: What role do you see for microLEDs vs electroluminescent quantum dots and other display technologies?
JH: Electroluminescent QD or “NanoLED” is the future of display. NanoLEDs will enable truly disruptive low temperature, low cost, solution processed manufacturing of displays with incredible performance.
Nanosys has made great progress in increasing NanoLED efficiency by over 10x and lifetime by more than 100x over the last 18 months. At SID this year, we announced that our heavy metal free red emitters have now reached commercial requirements for brightness, color and lifetime.
We also saw a truly stunning 4K solution printed NanoLED TV demonstrated by our partner and investor BOE. We expect this technology will come to market in consumer products by 2025, several years sooner than we originally planned based on the great progress we have made over the past two quarters.
However, microLED is much closer to entering the market and, indeed, we already see some of the first niche products out there in the form of ultra-high end TVs.
YD: The world was a strange place in 2020. How has Nanosys navigated the pandemic? What are your hopes for 2021?
JH: It was a strange year for us. Looking back on this time last year, we were just coming back to work after an unprecedented 67 day shelter-in-place order was lifted by the county health officer here in Santa Clara County, California. During that time we were only able to perform basic operations and, like many others in the supply chain, our shipments were substantially lower for the first half of 2020.
Since that time we’ve seen incredible demand for QD displays from consumers. With everyone working and playing from home, consumers are placing more of a premium on great visual experiences from their monitors and televisions. QDs are in a great sweet spot in the market, delivering a fantastic experience at the right price point.
Today, our factory is running at 100% capacity. We just closed a record first quarter and are on our way to a record first half. So it’s been quite a wild ride from early 2020 to now and an exciting time to be in the display business.
Jason Hartlove is the president and CEO of Nanosys. Jason Hartlove joined Nanosys in 2008 with a proven track record of turning emerging technologies into successful commercial products. He previously developed the Optical Mouse which has sold more than one billion units worldwide and is a standard feature in all PCs. Hartlove also pioneered and developed key technologies used in CMOS image sensors in smartphone cameras, high capacity lithium-ion battery technologies and solid-state inverter technology used in solar and electric car charging systems.
His vision for Nanosys has led the company to successfully pioneer and develop Quantum Dot based display technologies. Today, Nanosys maintains a nearly 100% market share for materials used in these ultra-bright displays with lifelike colors sold by companies including Samsung, Vizio, Hisense, TCL, Acer, Asus and Sharp.
Prior to joining Nanosys, he was president of the Imaging Solutions Division of MagnaChip Semiconductor in Seoul, South Korea, where he turned an internally focused semiconductor group into a multinational company on track for an IPO. Before MagnaChip, Hartlove was vice president and general manager of the Sensor Solutions Division of Agilent Technologies, and previously held management and development positions at Hewlett-Packard. Hartlove is the author of more than 20 patents, including the winner of the Hewlett Award in 2004 for best patent. He holds a B.S. in electrical engineering from UCLA and has completed graduate work at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.
Eric Virey, PhD, serves as a Principal Display Market and Technologies Analyst within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Eric has spoken in more than 50 industry conferences over the last 10 years and has been interviewed or quoted in multiple media including: The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, Bloomberg, Financial Review, Forbes, Technology Review, etc.
Prior to joining Yole, Eric held R&D, engineering, manufacturing and marketing positions with Fortune 500 Company Saint-Gobain in France and the United States. Eric received a PhD in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble. He is based in Portland, OR.
As a Technology & Market Analyst, Displays, Zine Bouhamri, PhD is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Zine manages the day to day production of technology & market reports, as well as custom consulting projects. He is also deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities at Yole.
Previously, Zine was in charge of numerous R&D programs at Aledia. During more than three years, he developed strong technical expertise as well as a detailed understanding of the display industry.
Zine is author and co-author of several papers and patents.
Zine Bouhamri holds an Electronics Engineering Degree from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France), one from the Politecnico di Torino (Italy), and a Ph.D. in RF & Optoelectronics from Grenoble University (France).
MicroLED Displays – Intellectual Property Landscape and Analysis 2021
Joining Apple, Samsung, LG, XDisplay, PlayNitride, Facebook and others, newcomers are accelerating microLED patenting activity.
Related Reports and Monitors
MicroLED Displays – Market, Industry and Technology Trends 2020
Market & Technology
Quantum Technologies 2021
Market & Technology