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Advanced Silicon's high voltage future

Advanced Silicon has received venture capital to market its cutting edge chips.

This content was published on August 28, 2002 - 19:49

Its high-voltage computer chips which drive liquid crystal displays, as well as other peripherals, enable manufacturers to replace customized, expensively processed integrated circuits with its cheaper ones.

Hussein Ballan, the founder of Lausanne-based Advanced Silicon, is one of many engineers around the world who have been taking on the challenge of integrating the high voltage requirements of flat panel displays, such a Notebook computer screen, on a chip made using the Complementary Metal Oxide Silicon (CMOS) process, the most common semiconductor manufacturing process in use today.

Because the chips can be made in CMOS they are a lot cheaper than the existing silicon solution.

"There is a trend toward using CMOS because of the cost factor," says Pat Dunn, director flat panel display market research and consulting at DisplaySearch Inc.

Normally, integrated circuits that drive plasma display panels, typically seen in the new flat screen TVs, are designed in the more expensive Bipolar CMOS and DMOS technologies, according to Dunn.

The Beirut-born Swiss scientist-turned-entrepreneur says his firm's designs "provide high-voltage support via extensions", which means that the chips can be made in CMOS with a minimum of modifications to the process.

The initial products offered by Advanced Silicon are based on Ballan's post-doctorate work at the electronics laboratory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

Venture capital

The young company's designs have been used to make integrated circuits for the newer flat panel Active Matrix liquid crystal displays. Newer chips will support Plasma Display Panels, as well as computer peripherals, such as printer drivers, motor drivers and audio amplifiers.

The flat screen segment of the display market is booming, according to Dunn. This would include plasma displays, typically seen in very large applications, such as television sets, as well as thin film liquid crystal displays, typically seen in a Notebook computer.

Advanced Silicon's business is based on selling its designs to established semiconductor manufacturers who will eventually offer the chips to computer as well as television manufacturers.

Money to develop European market

Advanced Silicon raised SFr5 million in its first round of capital from a Taiwanese semiconductor last month. Ballan is not disclosing the name of the manufacturer at this time.

The startup received the investment after completing the "proof of concept phase", a standard milestone which most hardware companies have to achieve before receiving significant financing.

The capital raising process began in 1999, a time when many young tech firms raised venture capital with only a great idea and a Powerpoint presentation.

"One mistake I made was to follow advice from financial consultants here who suggested that we could raise capital based in the same manner as a dotcom," says Ballan.

That was a mistake. Trying to find venture capital that way cost him about a year. Any startup that plans to sell hardware has to have a working prototype, Ballan learned.

It is necessary to have a strong reference customer and patents filed before quality capital will consider putting up the money required to go to the next step.

Ballan says that he did not avail himself of the technology transfer office at the EPFL, maybe if he had he would have raised the capital faster.

Either way, that particular hurdle is in the past. The firm is ready to go to the next stage: develop its targeted niche, the thin film technology display segment, whose chipmakers include the likes of Infineon, STMicroelectronics, and Philips.

by Valerie Thompson

Key facts

Advanced Silicon, SA makes innovative high-voltage integrated circuits for display drivers.
It is a research-based product.
Novel chip designs are past the proof of concept and prototype phase.
Innovative because chips can be manufactured using standard process (CMOS), rather than specialty processes (Bipolar CMOS-DMOS).
The firm received SFr5 million capital in July.
Venture money is to fund marketing and sales to European chipmakers.

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