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Nanotechnology Startup Disrupting Semiconductor Industry

Person in safety goggles and protective gear holding a nano-chip.

Nanotechnology Startup Disrupting Semiconductor Industry

Are you familiar with the limitations of silicon carbide? Offhand, probably not, but if you have ever noticed that the power converter for your laptop feels warm after prolonged use, then you might be more familiar with the energy limitations of this material than you think.

Almost all electronics devices contain a power converter, which make it possible for the device to access power safely from a power source, such as an electrical outlet in the wall. Currently, the key components in these power converters are silicon-based. Those in the business of manufacturing electronics and batteries, have long been aware that gallium nitride (GaN) is a far superior material for converting energy than the commonly used silicon carbide (SiC), but until recently, GaN has been too difficult to dope—the process of implanting ions into a semiconductor to change the properties of the semiconductor—correctly for wide-scale use. Odyssey Semiconductor, an innovative nanotechnology startup based in Ithaca, New York, and Rev’s newest member company, believes it has developed a disruptive proprietary technology that would enable GaN to displace SiC as the dominant high voltage power switching semiconductor material of choice, resulting in smaller and more efficient power sources, which is great news for electronics and battery manufacturers.  

Co-founders and semiconductor material researchers, Dr. Rick Brown and Dr. James Shealy, who met at Cornell University, set out to tackle the GaN problem head on. After receiving initial funding in 2017 from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment, the two launched their startup JR2J (acquired by Odyssey Semiconductor in 2019). Since its formation, the startup has successfully found a way to dope GaN, so that it can be manufactured easily and affordably into smaller, lighter, and more efficient power sources.

This discovery is revolutionary, not only because it could impact commonly used devices such as laptops, but it could also significantly impact the charging process of larger technologies, such as electric vehicles, which require a lot of energy to recharge due to their heavy batteries and the intensity of the power conversion. By replacing SiC with GaN, Odyssey Semiconductor’s technology could increase battery life, while decreasing the weight of materials and energy loss. Subsequently, this could save drivers time and money when charging their electric vehicles. The benefits of GaN don’t end there; the material could also be used at a much larger scale, such as in solar or power grids.

Odyssey Semiconductor is scaling up rapidly. The startup recently received an additional $2.5 million in funding from ARPA-E and acquired an integrated semiconductor design, fabrication, test, and packaging facility in Ithaca. According to Odyssey Semiconductor Project Manager, Summer Saraf, “Now that we have this additional funding and are in the process of looking for more funding, we would like to be able to hire more fabrication experts to help with our science and technology efforts.”

The startup also recently appointed Dr. Alex Behfar as Executive Chairman and acting CEO. Dr. Behfar, has over 30 years of experience in the semiconductor industry. He currently serves as a mentor for Cornell University’s Praxis Center for Venture Development and is President of Ulexus Consulting, a technical and business consulting firm.

As Odyssey Semiconductor continues to grow, the team is taking advantage of the resources within Ithaca’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. In addition to having strong ties to Cornell University, specifically the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility, Odyssey Semiconductor hopes to leverage Rev membership. Saraf states, “We’re all very good at science; however, we don’t have as many connections in the business world as we would like to, so we’re very excited to partner with Rev and be connected with people who know the things that we don’t.”