Building an “ecosystem” to fulfill a novel technology’s promise

Just how do novel technologies evolve from concept to market? Let’s take the example of printed electronics (and its evolution at PARC), which may provide some insight into this question.

Printed electronics is an approach to manufacturing electronic systems by directly depositing materials where you want them and only where you want them. This is in contrast to conventional fabrications methods, in which materials are (for example) deposited, masked, etched layer after layer.

Early work on printed electronics was driven by the display industry, with the hope that roll-to-roll printing would provide a cheaper manufacturing process for large-area electronics. Displays, though, are demanding applications with excruciatingly tough requirements in yield, uniformity, and lifetime. In recent years, other applications have emerged from printed electronics research worldwide — from lighting and photovoltaics, to RFID, batteries, memory, and sensors.

Given the diversity of applications, how do we move from the fundamental research that unlocks new possibilities, to the market impact of addressing what’s needed?

#1 Know the difference between markets and enabling technologies

 

At conferences, I often hear the comment that printed electronics is an emerging market. It’s not. There, I said it.

Printed electronics is an enabling technology. So the market is not printed electronics; the market is supply-chain logistics, medical devices, photovoltaics, lighting, structural health monitoring, consumer packaged goods, toys and games, and so on. Each of these players has different technical demands, different distribution and support requirements, and different adoption challenges.

I’ve frequently advised inventors to “get close to the market as early as possible.” Translation: make connections and test ideas early with those that will eventually be your customers, distributors, and supply chain partners. For enabling technologies, though, there’s a special challenge – you have to choose which markets to concentrate your efforts on, while remaining flexible (no pun intended!) enough to change as market realities unfold.

In the case of printed electronics, our objective is to build connections where there’s likely to be greatest impact in the “commercially relevant horizon” — a loaded phrase that carries the tension between visionary research on one hand and market reality on the other. (See #3 & #4 below.)

[Oh and by the way: if everyone is asking, “what’s the killer app?”...you’re likely working with an enabling technology.]

#2 Engaging in foundational research enables the commercial possibilities to evolve

Like most of the industry, printed electronics at PARC began as an outgrowth from our work in displays and large-area electronics, such as foundational research in amorphous silicon (a-Si), a non-crystalline form of silicon. A-Si can be deposited using thin film technologies over large areas, and has the benefit of being a low temperature process, compatible with a wide variety of substrates.

These benefits of A-Si enabled the development of high-performance electronics on substrates other than small, expensive silicon wafers.  One use case was digital x-ray imaging, demonstrated at PARC in the 1990s. The PARC spinout dpiX commercialized a-Si circuits that were used for medical, industrial, military, and security X-ray imaging. The company originally thought high-resolution displays would be the core of the business, but the market demand focused the company on x-ray. [dpiX was eventually acquired by Trixell (a Siemens Medical/ Phillips Medical/ Thomson-CSF joint venture), Planar Systems, and Varian Medical in 1999.]

Meanwhile, PARC continued research in new materials/substrates, new fabrication techniques, and challenging new applications.

To sum it up: the initial vision for the foundational research is often not where the value is ultimately created.  Those seeking breakthrough innovation have to deal with this uncertainty, with a fortitude that encourages the commercial possibilities to evolve.

#3 Embrace challenges and constraints

In the late 2000s, PARC tackled a DARPA project aimed at developing a flexible stick-on tape containing multiple sensors, memory, and battery at a cost of less than $1. (Why $1? Read this short case study to find out more details.)

We tackled this project because of the explicit belief that printed electronics’ impact would first be seen within parameters such as these — applications calling for low-cost, disposable electronic systems. Under this government-funded program, we were able to demonstrate feasibility of new technologies such as printed temperature sensors, acoustic sensors, light sensors, accelerometers, and pressure sensors, as well as the supporting electronics such as shift registers, amplifiers, batteries, and a write-once memory.

The key: government funding, which we received because of our core expertise in this area, also provided the constraints that allowed us to push the industry application space.

#4 Build an ecosystem to fulfill the promise

But simply having expertise, and demonstrating feasibility, does not equal commercial impact.

At Flextech 2010, PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talked about the importance of building an ecosystem when working in emerging technologies such as printed electronics. In his guest post for us, Raghu Das of IDTechEx points to over 2,000 organizations worldwide developing new platforms of materials, processes, and equipment to enable printed electronics – and that’s not even counting all the very early-stage players like government agencies and universities.

The end-users at these conferences repeatedly call for help in putting the pieces together. As one consumer goods company at last year’s Printed Electronics USA put it,  “We’re not an electronics company. Don’t bring me a piece of a display and expect me to have any idea how to use it.”

So someone needs to help connect the dots between all these players. Our strategic focus for printed electronics (2010s) is just that — to not just connect, but build the ecosystem for commercializing printed electronics:

Materials. For example, we’ve enjoyed a strong relationship with Polyera that enables us to use their leading materials within our designs.  With Polyera’s n- and p-type semiconductors, we were able to demonstrate the equivalent of CMOS in a fully printed transistor. In addition, we’ve worked with many other leading materials providers to help optimize their materials for these new application areas.

Enabling devices. We just announced a relationship with Thin Film Electronics, ASA (Thinfilm) to advance their printed memory products. A leader in non-volatile memory products based on the use of functional polymer materials, Thinfilm chose to work with us to combine PARC’s printed thin-film transistor technology with their printed memory architecture. The result will be higher capacity and more compact memory for their next-generation products. The partnership equals faster time to market for both of us.

Manufacturing and production. We’ve also been building manufacturing partnerships to enable a streamlined path from lab prototype to volume production.  We’ve invested in prototypes to test the process of migrating from lab to production, and will be sharing some case study insights with Soligie at PEUSA. In a similar vein, we’ve just purchased a micro-gravure printing press. While we use inkjet printing as our prototyping method because of its intrinsic flexibility for experimentation, the micro-gravure press will allow us to translate a prototype design from inkjet to processes that are more directly compatible with volume production.

#5 Understand the intersection of what’s possible and what’s needed

PARC has positioned itself to help our clients and partners “seize the spaces” between technology opportunity, business opportunity, and market reality. And the dialogue between those that understand what’s needed and those that understand what’s possible enables opportunities neither could come up with alone.

Having the right connections is one of the key differences between interesting technologies and great business opportunities. By working together to invent, we can come up with applications that are going to be more robust and differentiating than what either of us attempt to invent in isolation.

Interested?

If you have an application for printed or flexible electronics that you’d like to explore, stop by and see us at the upcoming Printed Electronics USA event, or send me a note. And of course, we’re interested in hearing your insights, and any experiences or lessons learned in moving technologies from concept to market — whether printed electronics or other novel technologies — in the comments below!