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Electronics Production | January 16, 2009

Finance for Printed Electronics is not drying up

The news media are full of the details of the global financial meltdown. Is this affecting finance for the small companies and start-ups involved in printed and potentially printed electronics and electrics? We think not.
By Raghu Das, CEO, IDTechEx

Every year, companies leave the oversupplied OLED value chain. Rob Haslett, CEO of Patterning Technologies, the ink jet specialist in the UK, tells us that the company has folded because an £850,000 investment has fallen through. We therefore approached Dr Alison Voice of Leeds Lithium Power which has a laminar battery produced reel-to-reel and has spent down a first round of finance. This product is based on an appealing lithium gel process involving a polyvinylidene film as a binder; excellent batteries are produced experimentally with the potential to rival the laminar lithium batteries of such famous, well funded start-ups as Infinite Power Solutions, Solicore and the recently created Planar Devices Inc. Such batteries are needed for miniature energy harvesting, backup power supplies, Active RFID and many other applications. Cymbet and Planar recently announced versions with the control electronics integral in the battery.

Dr Alison Voice and her colleague Professor Ian Ward have prepared the following response for Printed Electronics World:

"The Polymer Gel Electrolytes Group, housed within the Polymer IRC at Leeds University, is no longer trading as Leeds Lithium Power after the completion of the recent Venture Capital funding. However they currently have a number of active collaborations with industry, making batteries and smart cards, and are advancing the scientific understanding of the processes that underpin the technology through academic research. The work is currently funded by the University directly, but the group is seeking further funding and collaboration."

This follows on the heels of funding problems at Thin Film Electronics in Sweden; the company printing non-volatile memory so urgently needed for the printed electronics of the future. Its process involves an elegant, simple capacitor-like structure containing a layer of organic ferroelectric, with giant Solvay signed up as a partner to further improve the formulation. Thin Film Electronics ASA ("Thinfilm") announced on 5 December 2008 that "discussions with a potential industrial shareholding partner had been put on hold due to the situation in the world's financial markets. Consequently the board of Thinfilm has considered various alternative routes forward towards the commercialisation of the company's technology. As a result of the current financial market combined with the company's cash resources, Thinfilm needs to adjust its operation to ensure timely completion of certain critical tasks related to industrialisation and the establishment of channels to the market. The board of directors has decided to initiate cost savings in Linköping, Sweden. A core team will be retained. The savings are expected to take effect by the end of the first quarter of 2009."

Although it is tempting to conclude that the financial meltdown is going to destroy, or at least put on the back burner many exciting companies in this field, things are not so simple. Solvay, having only taken an interest in printed electronics in recent years, is continuing to put significant money into new businesses and research in the field, the latest being a three year programme to develop organic printed transistors at the center for Photonics and Electronics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The focus is high speed printing at low temperature. Pelikon, the company successfully making and selling printed AC electroluminescent displays has just been bought for $10.7 million by the quoted Multi-Fineline Electronix (MFLEX). That is not a distress level price.

Liquavista, the spin-off from Philips in printed, flexible, colour displays and Plastic Logic, the spin-off from Cambridge University in the UK in flexible e-books have yet to go into production. Nevertheless, they have now commenced a $20 million programme to build full colour, full video, low power, always visible demos in the face of fierce competition from East Asia.

Indeed, Konarka, holding more patents on printed photovoltaics than any other organization on earth, has yet to sell product in volume. Despite this it has recently announced wide web production capability, $45 million in funding from Total and a heavily funded collaborative programme in Germany aimed at improving the lifetime of organic photovoltaics. Konarka recently announced at the IDTechEx Printed Electronics USA conference that it could obtain a ten year life span but only with barrier layers that are currently prohibitively expensive. Total gains a stake of almost 20% in Konarka and Konarka will receive assistance in developing new products from Total's chemical subsidiaries Atotech, Bostik, Hutchison, Sartomer and Total Petrochemicals. In fact, IDTechEx calculates that there are 50% more organisations working in printed electronics than was the case one year ago and its annual conference and exhibition series in the USA, Europe and Japan on the subject continues to grow strongly in attendance. The US Military, NASA, the US Department of Energy and many other government organizations across the world continue to strongly invest in the industry as well.

The bottom line is that funding for start-ups and small companies involved in printed and potentially printed electronics and electrics continues to be available from many sources and progress is unabated.

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