Based in Ottawa’s technology corridor, GaN Systems is an Export Development Canada 2020 Cleantech One-to-Watch.
In the 1990s, the creation of gallium nitride (GaN) was a major breakthrough for the semiconductor industry. It is now moving beyond the limitations of legacy silicon systems and revolutionizing energy efficiency and design of power systems in industries including electric vehicles, consumer electronics, data centres, and renewable energy.
GaN Systems, based in Kanata, ON, is driving this industry-changing advancement with its new generation of power transistors. The company is enabling some of the largest electronics customers in the world to decrease the size and cost of their power systems while increasing their speed and efficiency at the same time.
The building blocks of power systems
Like a microprocessor chip is the most important piece in a computer’s brain, power transistors are the key components of any power system–whether it’s a power adaptor for a cell phone or the on-board charger (OBC) for an electric vehicle. Their basic function is to turn on and off rapidly to obtain the desired voltage and current profile to power a device.
GaN transistors have very low resistance and can be turned on and off incredibly fast: as much as 1,000 times faster than silicon transistors. Some of our customers’ power systems will turn the GaN transistors on and off as much as a million times per second. The ability to increase this frequency means that the components in the power system can be reduced in size. For example, with GaN transistors, a four-fold increase in frequency can create a four-fold reduction in size, cut power loss (waste) by four times, and make the components four times smaller and four times lighter. That means, customers can create notably more energy efficient designs but also reduce the building materials costs for power systems by roughly 10%.
Finding the right customers
The need for more efficient power conversion is an important element of moving the world to a more energy efficient and carbon-free economy. That’s why we target our products to areas with the potential for significant impact, including:
- Electric vehicles.
- Consumer electronics.
- Renewable energy.
- Data centres.
One of the challenges for us across markets is that the power systems market is usually very conservative in adopting and using new technology and for good reason. In a typical low-cost consumer electronics device like a charger, failure might mean a bad user experience or the need to replace the component. But when a power system component fails in an electric vehicle, the consequences are significant.
Partnering with big fish
Big companies usually like to buy from other big companies. Even thoughwe’re a mid-sized, but rapidly growing company, we design and build the best performing parts that has allowed us to partner with recognized leaders in the industry and supply products to well-known global brands. We build reference design circuit boards using our transistors in collaboration with partner’s Integrated Circuit semiconductors, so potential customers can see how they work together. This has also helped big companies recognize GaN Systems as an important player.
My experience has taught me that there are two kinds of companies when it comes to adopting new products:
- More adventurous, innovative and forward-looking companies who are excited by new and interesting technology like ours, and differentiate their own product offerings to be more competitive.
- More conservative companies that appreciate the comfort and safety of being a sub-set of a large company and wait to see how the market develops before following the trend.
Here at Gan Systems, we’re starting to see the latter group now adapting GaN, for example, in the phone and computer charger market.
The electronics industry is global and it’s important for us to work closely with our worldwide customers in the design of their products at the earliest stages. Over the past six years, we’ve spent a lot of time showing people how GaN transistors work, how to get the most benefit from them and drive system costs down. To do all of this, we have applications engineering labs in four countries throughout North America and Asia, where we build evaluation circuit boards for our customers.
Opportunity in the pandemic
We’re a global company with a workforce spread across several continents. It was fortunate that we were already a big user of collaboration tools–which helped us transition to work from home during COVID-19.
But not all of our work can be done remotely. We still need staff in our labs to continue doing the evaluation work and people in the factory to continue making our products. Fortunately, most of our products are made in Taiwan where the response to COVID-19 has been among the best in the world, which has helped sustain productivity.
GaN Systems is also fortunate that semiconductor manufacturers have been declared essential businesses throughout most of the world. In fact, demand for our products from customers in the computer and data centre industries has never been higher, largely fuelled by the sudden worldwide shift to remote working arrangements and the devices and infrastructures needed to support them. Energy is the top cost for data centres, making efficient power conversion a considerable cost-savings benefit, while reducing their energy requirements at the same time.
How EDC helped
GaN Systems was founded in 2009 after we developed our first device in the National Research Council Canada lab in Ottawa with help from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC). In 2014, again with help from SDTC, we launched our products into the marketplace and we’re now in high-volume, high-growth mode. At this stage, access to working capital can be a growth accelerating or throttling factor. There’s a long lag between when we buy our inputs and when we get paid for our products and that can add up to millions of dollars. Export Development Canada’s recent investment in GaN Systems, as well as security they provide to our bank through the Export Guarantee Program, has provided us with access to working capital, so we can continue fulfilling larger orders and continue on our growth trajectory.