While doing due diligence on the recent ISSCC posts, I came across mention of Toshiba/SanDisk’s development partner, Intermolecular (IM), based in San Jose, CA. (It just so happens that several former colleagues are currently working at IM as the Silicon Valley job cycle takes another turn). As I mentioned in a Blog on the Stanford International Workshop on Resistive RAM last year, IM has an interesting value proposition based on their proprietary High Productivity Combinatorial (HPC) technology. For reasons that will become obvious there is not much published detail out there beyond the overview on their website, www.intermolecular.com. However, there is a bit more in the form of webcasts of recent Analysts Conferences and the latest quarterly earnings conference call (ir.intermolecular.com/events.cfm).
The technology is based on physical vapor deposition and allows one to deposit many different materials at different positions across a wafer or other substrate (see the accompanying image which comes from IM’s website). This allows you to do multiple experiments on a single wafer/substrate which, I can assure you, means that exploring a material composition space is hugely faster than more conventional techniques. PVD is used across a number of industries which is reflected in the number of apparently diverse partners with whom IM is working. For example outside the semiconductor sector, IM are working on glass coatings and thin film solar technology. Their business model is based around two revenue streams. The first, Collaborative Development Programs (CDP) where IM perform contracted R&D to bring a particular material/process to market. The second is based on licensing IP resulting from the CDP and other sources.
One successful CDP mentioned in the webcasts involved working with Elpida to optimize Elpida’s DRAM for the mobile market. The CEO announced that these chips are present in the iPhone 5 as revealed by a recent ‘tear-down’. So possibly this is an example where they have moved on from a CDP to a licensing/royalty income structure. Another ongoing CDP is with Toshiba/SanDisk on ‘3D ReRAM’ although this is up for renewal in the first half of the year. There was an implication in the webcasts that this collaboration includes the 32Gb ReRAM chip described at the ISSCC. It would certainly make sense to apply the HPC technology to optimize the ReRAM material film(s) which are deposited on a planar surface where PVD would be a preferred process. Another hint is the number of sketches of cross point arrays in IM’s latest patents! The CEO, David Lazovsky a veteran of Applied Materials, went on to describe the IP division with Toshiba/SanDisk as IM retaining the IP for the ReRAM cell in terms of the material, process and process integration whereas their partners have the IP related to the devices and architecture of the chip.
Elpida are currently going through bankruptcy with Micron seeking approval to purchase the company. Elpida of course have been associated with ReRAM in the past so it looks as if the necessary firewalls are in place at IM to prevent the cross contamination of IP between different partners. Nonetheless, Micron and Toshiba/SanDisk are fierce rivals across a number of semiconductor product lines so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. (I noticed that according to Google maps Micron has a campus literally just over the street from IM which no doubt helps with these negotiations) This came up several times in the webcasts and the IM CEO admitted that Micron do not have a reputation for contracting out R&D. Nonetheless, he seemed confident the Elpida interaction will continue under their new management.
Christie Marrian, www.ReRAM-Forum.com Moderator