UK-based SmartKem is developing a new class of flexible high-mobility p-type semiconductor inks for flexible displays. The company recently made headlines as it started its commercialization phase and announces advances in its collaboration projects with OLED producers in Asia.
SmartKem's CEO and founder, Steve Kelly, was kind enough to answer a few questions we had on SmartKem's technology and business. Steve is an international business professional with more than 20 years’ experience specializing in technology ventures, particularly early stage. He has extensive experience in Intellectual Property exploitation, VC funding and launching new technology to market.
Q: Steve, thank you for your time and for this interview. Can you first give us an overview of SmartKem’s OTFT technology?
SmartKem’s organic thin film transistor (OTFT) backplanes are designed for both glass and flexible displays. They are compatible with electronic paper displays (EPD), liquid crystal displays (LCD) and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technologies. Through our sophisticated modelling and simulation, they have sufficient driving capability for OLED and potentially, microOLED displays which offer increased contrast, response times and energy efficiency.
Our OTFTs offer novel features, including very high ‘on current’, very low ‘off current’ and excellent bias stress stability to enhance shelf life and performance during operation. In particular, combining very low off current with good stability provides the potential for battery life that is two times greater than that of like for like devices using LTPS TFTs.
In addition, our unique OTFT materials perform to a high standard in terms of physical and electrical robustness when stressed to less than 0.5mm bend radius. SmartKem can supply a revolutionary complete ‘materials stack’ that includes our market leading semiconductor and dielectric, planarization and passivation formulations which are all organic solution based materials. Furthermore, we can supply full design rules and a Process of Record for production, making our technology easy to adopt and implement on existing production lines at a lower cost to the customer, whilst ensuring industrial grade yield and uniformity.
Q: In early October 2017, SmartKem announced a collaboration with an OLED maker in China to co-develop OTFT-based flexible displays. It seems that this project focuses on flexible LCDs at first. What kind of displays do you see being developed in this partnership? Do you see a market for flexible LCDs? Will this collaboration later evolve into flexible OLEDs too?
The agreement allows us to develop OTFT displays on glass and plastic for both LCD and OLED technologies. Early developments for LCD displays will be ideal for mobile technology, in particular, for wearables applications. We see that there is a market opportunity for flexible LCDs where conformal, lightweight and robust mobile devices are required which deliver significantly improved battery life performance in comparison to existing mobile technology.
The vision is for the collaboration to evolve to flexible OLEDs which will include bend radius applications that are much smaller than LCDs.
Q: In July 2017, you finalized an industrial grade 2.5-Gen (400x500 mm) process for the mass production of OTFT backplanes on glass or plastic. How scalable are your materials and this process for mass production of OLED displays (6-Gen and larger)?
Our business plan is to work with smaller production lines initially – those between Gen 2.5 and Gen 4.5 – and scale to the larger lines, Gen 6, within two to three years.
Q: In December 2016, SmartKem raised 3 million euro in funding, how do you plan to utilize this investment and how far do you see it taking SmartKem?
We have a dedicated syndicate of tier 1 investors who intend to fully fund SmartKem to achieve our company goals over the next two to three years. Funding achieved in 2016 has been invested in continued research and development of our technology and is supporting our efforts towards industrialisation with display partners.
Q: We'd be happy to hear more about the process that is used to deposit your materials. Do you cooperate with any equipment makers?
Our process is designed to be integrated into existing a-Si lines, enabling ease of adoption at a low cost. We use a slit coat process at low temperature – below 150ºC – for our solution processed organic materials. We do collaborate with some equipment makers but most of our integration work is done directly with the engineering teams from our display partners.
Q: What makes your technology different from other flexible organic-based TFTs like Plastic Logic and nVerPix, for example?
Our pioneering OTFT technology stack replaces the existing backplane layer in displays to enable next generation display technology. High molecular ordering and finely tuned bandgap means very low contact resistance and therefore superior, high mobility and drivability, as well as on currents that are four times higher than competitors. Our solution has a low molecular weight - M N at less than 5,000 – and is highly purified which results in highly stable TFT. In fact, the SmartKem solution is best in class when it comes to electrical stability.
Furthermore, the advancements and maturity of our manufacturing process, to the point where we are ready for scaling up and industrialization on existing production lines in Asia, puts us ahead of the field in bringing the technology to market.
Q: When is it realistic to expect a commercial display to be produced using your backplane material if all goes well? And a flexible OLED specifically?
If all goes well with our display partners in Asia, we expect the first commercial displays to come off production lines within 12 to 18 months and flexible OLED within 24 months.
Q: How do you see the flexible display market evolving in the next 3-5 years? What role will SmartKem have in this market?
It is evident that next generation devices are going to be reliant on OLED displays rather than LCD. The shift to OLED from LCD by Apple for its iPhone X and investment by other big players, such as Samsung and Huawei, is symbolic of a much wider change in displays across the portable and wearable device industry. OLED technology enables the manufacture of displays on plastic rather than glass and creates huge benefits for display makers, including more ergonomic, flexible displays.
OLED has moved into the mainstream, becoming the technology of choice and enabling truly ground-breaking possibilities for both the form and function of portable and wearable devices. This is great news for innovators like ourselves. In the future, OLED will be the technology that enables the manufacture of flexible displays – a major device differentiator that will no doubt invigorate the saturated smartphone market. High-tech, high-spec displays are the future and as such will need to be more robust, ergonomic and lighter – and that’s where SmartKem comes in.
Our technology will be a key part in the drive towards fully flexible displays. The flexible display market will move to narrow bend radius applications which plays into the natural territory of OTFT which is inherently flexible.
I believe China will become the dominant manufacturing force in flexible display manufacturing thanks to significant government investment. As a result, within the next five years, I expect to see a Chinese value chain fully established and many of the current manufacturing and quality challenges faced by display makers with OLED and flexible OLED resolved.
OTFT technology is a much simpler manufacturing process than LTPS and can potentially support Chinese display manufacturers achieve dominance by enabling scale up to a yielded process more quickly and efficiently, thanks to its lower cost and reduced complexity.
Thank you for this interview Steve, and I wish both you and SmartKem the best of luck!