If you say “IP” in the chip business, everyone thinks of cores and design. But in fact, the importance of intellectual property for chips can extend right down to the substrate level.
Engineered, advanced wafer substrates open new doors for designers. For example, Soitec recently announcement that we are licensing some of our Smart Stacking™ generic bonding IP related to back-side illumination (BSI) in image sensors to TSMC. This is a clear testament to the value of IP starting at the substrate level. But in fact, TSMC is not the first company licensing our portfolio for BSI: ST took a license for BSI a few years ago.
Soitec is known throughout the industry for our Smart CutTM technology, the enabler of the silicon-on-insulator (SOI) wafer revolution. Most of today’s industry-leading SOI wafers destined for chip manufacturing are made by wafer suppliers using the Smart Cut layer transfer technology. The Smart Cut technology is also behind the development of new families of standard and custom engineered wafers.
In fact, Soitec’s IP portfolio extends to over 3000 patents covering over 600 inventions, and every year, we add about 350 more patents. This gives us what is arguably the most complete advanced substrate engineering portfolio in the world.
So when speaking of Soitec’s expertise, we might think first of SOI wafers, but in fact, such IP is generic. It can be used as building blocks in leading-edge microelectronic products, applied to an array of materials covering a wide realm of applications.
For example, Smart Cut™ technology is now being leveraged by Sumitomo Electric to produce GaN substrates for high-performance LED lighting applications. Following the announcement of last year, Sumitomo is now industrializing the product and investing in Smart Cut technology.
In the case of Soitec’s Smart Stacking™ generic bonding technology, one of the earliest applications was indeed BSI image sensors, to help manufacturers to deliver increased sensitivity and smaller pixel size. But Smart Stacking will also be leveraged to dramatically improve the performance of RF products, opening new doors to future RF and 3D-integration applications.
One example of how effective our IP policy is came about in 1997 when we contracted with Shin-Etsu Handotai Co., Ltd (SEH) of Japan for SOI manufacturing using our Smart Cut technology. The manufacturing agreement helped establish SOI products made with Smart Cut technology as the global standard.
Last year, Soitec and SEH (which is the world leader in the manufacturing of silicon wafers) announced a Smart Cut™ licensing extension and expanded technology cooperation agreement. The new partnership includes an extended 10-year licensing agreement between the two companies and establishes a new level of joint technology cooperation. It will facilitate the development and wafer supply of SOI wafers to meet major market opportunities such as SOI for RF devices, FinFETs on SOI and FD-SOI.
The agreement expands the scope of the partnership between Soitec and SEH, including cross-licensing Smart Cut related patents between the two companies. SEH will now also be able to extend its Smart Cut manufacturing capabilities to other materials, a trend commonly referred to as Silicon on Anything or SOA (any material on top of which there is a thin film of plain silicon), thereby further expanding the scope of applications.
Soitec’s expertise also extends to the domain of III-V epitaxy, which is leveraged in substrates for applications like RF, power, and lighting.
Beyond microelectronics, we are leveraging and expanding our innovation portfolio in energy markets. For example, earlier this year we announced the industry’s first four-junction solar cell for concentrator photovoltaic systems. We leverage both our proprietary semiconductor-bonding (Smart Stacking™) and layer-transfer (Smart Cut™) technologies to successfully stack non-lattice-matched materials while also raising the possibility of re-using expensive materials. These cells have recently reached efficiency of 44.7%, setting the world record.
The Soitec IP portfolio now represents over 20 years of successful innovation at the substrate level. We invest around 10% of our revenue in R&D to develop and perfect breakthrough materials technologies. Our R&D teams work closely with manufacturers, as well as with laboratories such as CEA-Leti and the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems. We also take full advantage of the high-tech resources available in and around all of our locations worldwide.
In short, the innovations found in our substrate engineering IP portfolio are at the heart of how we lead, grow and maximize value through incremental and breakthrough solutions for the electronics and energy industries.