SmartKem's CEO explains the company's OTFT tech and the future of flexible OLED production

Steve Kelly (SmartKem)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.

Smartkem and a leading OLED maker in China to co-develop and commercialize OTFT-based LCDs and OLEDs

UK-based OTFT developer SmartKem announced that it has signed a letter of intent (LOI) towards a commercialization partnership with a leading OLED market in China. This partnership will enable the development and industrialization of OTFT LCDs and OLEDs on plastic substrates.

OTFT Backplane (SmartKem)

SmartKem says that this LOI is just the first step in a joint commitment by SmartKem and the OLED maker to develop LCD and AMOLED solutions and a full commercialization of an OTFT-based display production.

SmartKem announced OTFT advances in Asia

SmartKem announced that it has finalized an industrial grade 2.5-Gen (400x500 mm) process for the mass production of OTFT backplanes on glass or plastic. SmartKem achieved this step at its pilot line in the UK CPI and its own synthesis and formulation Technology Centre based at Hexagon Tower in Manchester. The approved process is now being transferred to its production partners in Asia. The OTFT backplanes can be used for LCD or OLED displays.

SmartKem's customer will integrate the new process in a pilot line for the manufacture of product prototypes and scaled display production. It is anticipated that the first display products manufactured through this collaboration will hit the Asian market within 12-18 months.

OTFT developer SmartKem announces a £3 million financing round

UK's SmartKem, a developer of high-performance organic backplanes for flexible displays, announced a €3 million financing round from its existing investors, including BASF Venture Capital, Octopus Ventures and Entrepreneurs Fund.

This new round follows a recent €1.8 million EU grant awarded to SmartKem to support the commercialisation of the company’s technology platform, specifically with display makers in Asia.

Yole Developpement sees OTFT-based flexible OLEDs within 2-3 years

Yole Developpement released a new report covering the OTFT market for flexible displays and other applications. According to Yole, some display makers in Taiwan and China are currently in the process of industrializing OTFT-based displays - flexible LCDs at first, with flexible OLEDs coming within 2-3 years.

OTFT penetration for displays (2016-2022, Yole)

The mobility of OTFTs are already high enough for LCDs (higher than a-Si) - but still not enough for OLEDs. But in 2-3 years this should be resolved, with low-performance (200 PPI) OLED displays for wearables, some consumer applications and embedded automotive OLEDs possible within 2-3 years.

SmartKem secured a €1.8 million EU grant to transfer its OTFT platform to display makers in Asia

UK's SmartKem, a developer of high-performance organic backplanes for flexible displays, has secured a €1.8 million EU grant to support the industrialisation and technology transfer of its semiconductor platform to display makers in Asia.

The 2-year project (which will total €2.65 million, with a €850,000 contribution from SmartKem itself) is called FLEXTRANS - and it will accelerate the adoption of organic semiconductors as a universal backplane platform for the mass manufacture of flexible and curved OLED and LCD displays. The project will focus on the industrialisation and transfer of the OTFT platform over large area plastic substrates using standard slit coat processing, while maintaining electrical and physical uniformity and quality of transistor performance.

nVerPix demonstrate its CNT-based OLET displays

In 2011 the University of Florida announced a new organic-TFT backplane/emitter technology called CN-VOLET. The University spun-off the technology into a company called nVerPix, with funding from Nanoholdings.

We have talked to nVerPix in the past and updated on the technology back in 2013. The nVerPix team presented their technology at SID's DisplayWeek - and it won the "best prototype" awarded. nVerPix demonstrate a working mono-color (green) 320x240 2.5" display. The aperture ratio is 70% and the brightness is over 500 nits.

The CPI installed a new R&D R2R printing and encapsulation line

The UK-based Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) recently installed a new roll to roll (R2R) slot die/screen printing and encapsulation line that can be used to print, coat and pattern a range of organic and in-organic solution based coatings.

VDL R2R tool at the UK CPI

The new line can assist researchers with development towards commercialization of a host of printable electronics applications - including photovoltaics, OTFT and printed batteries. The system was custom-built by VDL, and it consists of two pieces of equipment - a roll to roll slot die coating and rotary screen printing and a coating toolset.

The CPI developed and installed a new roll-to-roll digital lithography tool for OTFT manufacturing

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is a UK based R&D institute that helps companies develop and scale manufacturing processes. The CPI, in collaboration with Heidelberg Instruments have developed a new high-resolution high-speed roll-to-roll (R2R) digital lithography tool for the manufacture of flexible organic thin film transistors (OTFTs).

CPI and Heidelberg Instruments R2R digital lithography tool

The machine is already installed at the CPI's National Printable Electronics Facility in County Durham, UK. The new tool provides the ability to continuously manufacture OTFTs directly onto rolls of plastic film at rates approaching 0.1 m2/min.

FlexEnable and CPT's OTFT flexible AMOLED prototype shown in video

A few months ago, FlexEnable and Chunghwa Picture Tube (CPT) demonstrated a full-color flexible AMOLED display that uses FlexEnable's OTFT backplane. FlexEnable today published a video showing the display in action:

This glass-free display is still a prototype (as you can see there are many defects) - but it's a great demonstration of a truly flexible display. It operates at 60Hz and is only 125 microns thick.

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