Startup company innovates chip through better packaging
Picture a computer in the 1960s and you’re likely thinking of something along the lines of the HP2100 mini-computer; a large, clunky object with about as much computing power as a modern Happy Meal toy. The 2100 series was introduced in 1966, a year after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore came up with a theory: every two years, the number of transistors per square inch would double. Sure enough, fast forward to 1974 and you’ll find the Altair 8800, a computer about the size of a modern PC tower, although still nearly as archaic. And onward the trend went: from the Altair 8800, to the IBM personal computer, to the Macintosh 128k, and so on.
This phenomenon of computers getting smaller and more powerful at a predictable rate became known as Moore’s Law, and it’s been a pretty significant concept in the world of computing.
“Computers used to be huge, air conditioned things, and now we have processing power in our phones which is just unbelievable—we have more processing power and less battery cost,” said Shelby Nelson, chief technology officer at Rochester’s Mosaic Microsystems, a member of the Luminate NY incubator. “That trend is actually coming to an end. We’re not getting the same bang for the buck for the miniaturization— you don’t get power improvement and you don’t get the performance improvement.”
While you can still make circuit boards smaller, the efficiency improvement is something that is becoming more and more difficult to keep up with. That’s where Mosaic is stepping in with a new concept on how transistors can be mounted on a circuit board using glass. The concept is essentially a packaging technique using an extremely thin layer of glass between the transistors and the circuit board. The result is the ability for integrated circuits and chips, which normally communicate via channels in the board, to function almost as if they were on the same chip. That, in turn, allows for a smaller board to function more efficiently.
“It’s the next most low-hanging fruit,” Nelson said. “Packaging used to be sort of an after-thought, but now it’s becoming a really important element in the design of the chip.”
It’s not just the size though—it’s reliability at higher computing powers, higher radio frequencies and higher electrical signals. Glass is an insulator, which when applied to the chip, keeps the chip functioning normally as things heat up. That’s a critical element, as extremely high-intensity computing power becomes more and more common, for everything from electric vehicles to smartphones.
“Glass is a real insulator, even at very high frequencies,” Nelson said. “So when we move to 5G, the next generation of cellphone communication, this is actually a substrate that still works at those high frequencies. This is a substrate that still works as an insulator at higher temperatures, so as we move toward autonomous vehicles, and there’s more and more electronics in autonomous vehicles, this substrate is one that continues to be an insulator and doesn’t change shape like some polymers would.”
Mosaic was not an original winner in the first annual Lightning Awards, the startup exhibition which planted 10 companies in the Luminate NY incubator. Rather, the company was later added as a runner up, while still experiencing all of the benefits of the original 10. For Nelson and the company, it’s a real profound opportunity to get their tech to market.
“The Luminate accelerator is fascinating,” Nelson said. “They’ve brought in programming which has helped ramp, certainly me, from a very research and technology background, to understand so much more about the business aspects of running a small business. Perhaps the most important is I’ve met some dynamic other inventors. The entrepreneurs starting other companies are truly an inspiring bunch of people. Bringing us all together is just another piece that has been very useful and fun.”
That’s good timing for Mosaic. Currently, the company is pumping out prototypes and preparing manufacturing processes for their first market run. If all goes according to plan, the first Mosaic products will hit the market in the third or fourth quarter this year.
Based on Lee Road, Mosaic has every intention of staying in Rochester, lending to some very deep roots. CEO Christine Whitman currently serves as chairman of the board at Rochester Institute of Technology. President Paul Ballentine was a co-founder of CVC Products, also based on Lee Road, and played a large role in help securing AIM Photonics’ establishment in Rochester. Nelson spent 16 years as a senior research scientist at Kodak Research Labs.
“We’re actually Rochester-based, and have a history of being so,” Nelson said. “All of our team comes from Rochester—a lot of our team has actually built businesses in Rochester before. Our intention is to build a factory in Rochester and, with our growth projections, expect to be employing over 200 people in five years.”