Alex Lidow's quest to replace silicon and revolutionize   electronics

Author:GaNo Optoelectronics    Posted:2015-09-12

         A Series of Forbes Insights Profiles of Thought Leaders Changing the Business Landscape: Alex Lidow, Founder and CEO, Efficient Power Conversion.  

        There are good reasons for why silicon has long been the superstar ingredient in semiconductor chips:  It has excellent conductive properties and, after oxygen, it’s the second-most abundant element on earth. That makes it pretty cheap, which is why it can be found in nearly all the laptops, cars, cell phones, televisions, and computers manufactured today.
But entrepreneur Alex Lidow hates the stuff. Since his youth, the California Institute of Technology and Stanford-educated physicist has come to see silicon as highly inefficient, and as such, has been looking for a way to completely displace its use, at least in things like cell phones, automobiles,  medical equipment, and computers that use power to run.

        So he’s bet his career on gallium nitride, or GaN, a compound that, while much more expensive than silicon, is also much more efficient, and thus able to enable entirely new gadgets while saving 15% of the all the energy used by existing electrical equipment in doing things such as amplifying high-power radio frequencies. In other words, Lidow says, GaN will make even faster the transmission of data in things such as cell phones, while reducing our global energy needs considerably.

        The company he founded in 2007, called Efficient Power Conversion, or EPC, is wholly dedicated to the task of putting GaN in the forefront for use in a variety of things. wireless power transmission, Class D audio amplifiers, (using a small circuit board, this would produce less heat, and extend battery life on portable systems); and pulsed lasers, or LiDAR (Light Distancing and Ranging), designed to quickly create 3D images useful in mapping and meteorology.

         For example, cars that use LiDAR (Light Distancing and Ranging) to “see” intelligently and thus drive themselves – enter the autonomous car.  Power cords, those wires that connect all our electrical equipment to wall sockets, will also soon become obsolete as GaN-based transmitters wirelessly and safely beam energy directly to the appliance.  Using GaN, engineers in Israel miniaturized an X-ray machine to the point where it fits into a pill that can be swallowed.  Soon these pills will be available world-wide as a new, more convenient, and lower cost way to perform a colposcopy. Every day GaN is making things smaller and more efficient in new and unexpected ways.

         “It’s clear to me, and has been for quite a while, but I think it’s becoming clear to the world that gallium nitride, as a superior performing and lower cost technology, will replace silicon, at least in the world of power,” says Lidow.

         He can’t speak to his company’s revenues, but Lidow says EPC’s sales doubled last year, and it claims a 90% market share in the space for GaN use. He has some 700 customers, including “every one of the top 100 electronics companies in the U.S.,” which are using EPC’s GaN “in one form or another,” Lidow says. But he is also meeting other goals: One is to make GaN production cheaper than that of silicon. And another is to see it get widely adopted for use.

Though EPC is only 7 years old, Lidow, 60, has in one way or another, been stepping towards this opportunity his entire life. Lidow’s father earned an engineering degree in Berlin in the 1930s; a Jew, he soon fled Nazi Germany, settled in El Segundo, CA. and started chip maker International Rectifier in 1947. Lidow’s father pushed him in the engineering direction from an early age, prodding the younger Lidow to help build an electric car in high school. “My father was dying to have kids who were engineers,” he says, “so he kind of engineered engineers my whole life.”

        After a brief love affair with aeronautical engineering, Lidow fell in love with solid state physics while an undergrad at CalTech; after graduate school at Stanford where he’d studied gallium arsenide, he landed a job as a research and development engineer at IR, and went on to co-invent the power MOSFET, a transistor credited with launching modern power conversion industry. IR went public in 1958, but was a very small semiconductor company at the time of the power MOSFET development.  Lidow’s power MOSFET patents eventually brought in almost $1B in royalties from competitors and established the company as the largest producer in power MOSFETs until it was acquired by Infineon in January 2015.

        By 2000 IR boasted $1 billion in sales, and Lidow had become its CEO. During this time Lidow learned about a group of scientists spun out of CalTech  who had figured out how to make transistors in a thin layer of gallium nitride grown on top of a standard silicon chip. “That immediately turned on a light bulb,” he says: Given his PhD work in gallium arsenide, he also knew well its cousin’s benefits as well as pitfalls, the chief one being production cost. “But if you could grow it on the standard piece of silicon, you eliminated that cost problem and you were able to hopefully harvest the superior performance,” he says.

        Sensing a great opportunity, Lidow bought this little company, a Cal Tech spin-off, incorporated it into IR and began IR’s GaN work.  But Lidow’s pet project proved unpopular with the company’s established culture: In a company with some 10,000 products, “it’s very, very difficult to get people to focus on a product that – eight, nine years from then – will deliver revenue, but in the process will obsolete your largest product line.” Being unable to focus on the GaN division, he adds, “was a frustration.”

        Then, Lidow found himself fired. And then the problem of being unable to focus on what he’d wanted to all along “miraculously or serendipitously took its own turn,” he says.

        Sometimes getting fired presents the best opportunities of all. That’s when Lidow founded EPC. From his power MOSFET experience, Lidow says, “I knew what it took to develop not just a new technology, but get it adopted and also get it to a brutally low cost. But there I was. My funds were extremely limited, and I was certainly somewhat tainted as a leader.”

        Nevertheless, Lidow approached a friend, Archie Huang, a prominent Taiwanese industrialist who owned silicon foundries there, and convinced him to begin manufacturing some GaN products. It would need no capital investment, Lidow reasoned, because Huang had open production capacity. Not only did Huang agree to produce the GaN products, but he invested in Lidow’s company. “Our thesis was that we wanted to make a product that worked just like a power MOSFET and we wanted to make it cheaper than MOSFET.” (Huang and Lidow remain the two single investors in EPC.)