July 7, 2003 — When Greg Schmergel was growing up in the 1970s, nanotechnology was the stuff of science fiction. Now the 34-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Nantero Inc. believes carbon nanotubes deposited on silicon wafers eventually will replace every other form of semiconductor memory chip.
Founded two years ago, the company’s goal is to produce highly conductive, single-layer nanotube “fabrics” that provide permanent data storage even without power. Along the way it has coined a new term: NRAM (nanotube-based/nonvolatile random access memory).
Forget “old-fashioned” terms like DRAM and SRAM (dynamic RAM, static RAM), the company believes NRAM will supplant all existing forms of memory and become the universal chip of choice. And because each memory bit depends not on one single nanotube but on a large number of nanotubes woven together, NRAM offers substantial redundancy for memory.
Schmergel said the Woburn, Mass.,-based company is well on its way to making NRAM a mass-produced reality.
“We plan to do this with multiple manufacturing partners to whom we would license the technology,” he said. While he won’t identify who the company’s potential partners are, he did say “they are all large semiconductor companies that manufacture different forms of memory.”
Because the new chip is nonvolatile — meaning that when the power is shut off, data is not lost — Nantero’s expectations for it are as big as the semiconductor market itself. NRAM could enable instant-on computers, power cell phones and replace flash memory in PDAs, MP3 players and digital cameras. Other possible uses include high-speed network servers. And because the technology is considerable faster and denser than DRAM, the company believes NRAM could eventually replace hard disk storage.
According to Juan Sanchez, an analyst with Punk, Ziegel & Co. who has visited the company, Nantero officials are secretive, share little with the public and avoid contributing to industry “nanobuzz.” Sanchez said the company is a good investment opportunity for VCs because of its intellectual property, the people involved and the size of its potential market.
“They have met every one of the milestones they promised,” he said.
The proprietary NRAM design was invented by Thomas Rueckes, Nantero’s chief scientific officer and founding member. The company estimates potential revenue, which is the total size of the storage market, at more than $100 billion.
Company officials believe they have no direct competitors. IBM and Infineon Technologies AG, one of Europe’s largest semiconductor makers, are developing nonvolatile memory, but are using magnetic random access memory (MRAM).
In May, Nantero announced it had created an array of 10 billion suspended nanotube junctions on a single wafer. The process involves depositing a very thin layer of carbon nanotubes over the entire surface of the wafer, then using lithography and etching to remove the nanotubes that are not in the right position to serve as elements in the array.
The announcement was significant because “it demonstrates you can do this using standard equipment, which means NRAM can be made in any existing factory,” Schmergel said.
“Basically what they’re doing seems to make sense,” said Steve Cullen, director of semiconductor research at InStat/MDR. “If it’s nonvolatile and fast, that gives it an advantage over what’s out there today.”
The NRAM chip would replace two kinds of memory, noted Cullen. While cell phones, for example, use both flash chips and SRAM or DRAM chips, NRAM would perform both functions.
The downside, he said, is the fact that the DRAM market is oversupplied and those chipmakers frequently have to sell at a loss, making it difficult for any new technology to break in. In addition, Nantero seems to lag behind MRAM developers — Motorola and IBM, to name two — in bringing its technology out of the research phase and into actual product development.
Chief Operating Officer Brent Segal, the third member of the founding team, said that when Nantero announced its intentions to make a universal memory chip, skeptics pointed out that nanotubes grow indiscriminately and are extremely difficult to align. Thus, May’s announcement that it had successfully arranged 10 billion nanotube junctions was a major breakthrough.
“Creating this enormous array of suspended nanotubes using standard semiconductor processes brings us much closer to our end goal of mass producing NRAM chips,” Segal said.
25-D Olympia Avenue
Woburn MA 01801
Founded in March 2001, Nantero’s product centers on technology developed by co-founder Thomas Rueckes at Harvard University.
Small tech-related products and services
Nantero is working to develop NRAM (nonvolatile random access memory), a portable memory chip with low power consumption, high speed and storage density better than other memory options (such as flash memory, DRAM, SRAM, etc.). The company is researching the use of carbon nanotubes on a silicon substrate. Potential NRAM users include most electronic device manufacturers. Nantero envisions NRAM one day replacing hard disks as a key means of data storage. The company plans to license its technology to chip makers.
In August 2001 Nantero received $6 million in first-round funding from:
Barriers to market
Nantero is developing an alternate technology in a field that already offers multiple memory options. The company will need to convince potential users of the benefits of NRAM over existing methods.
No other firms appear to be working with the specific technology that Nantero employs, though several are exploring alternate memory systems. These include:
Why they’re in small tech
“There is scope for a tremendous amount of invention,” said CEO Greg Schmergel. “In our space, there’s no one else even working on it. We have filed close to 30 patent applications during the last two years. That’s something you couldn’t do in, say, car manufacturing or other traditional industries where the great ideas have already been had.”
What keeps them up at night
“The main challenge now is licensing our technology to manufacturers as soon as possible.”
Hybrid circuit having nanotube electromechanical memory
Company to launch nanotube computer memory chips this year
— Research by Gretchen McNeely