An idea hatched in an NC State lab is enabling Raleigh’s Nitronex Corporation to become a worldwide leader in the development of gallium nitride semiconductors, expected to become the basis for the next generation of mobile wireless technology. In anticipation of expanding production, Nitronex is preparing a new 69,000-square-foot facility in Research Triangle Park. It’s part of a stunning growth spurt for the four-year-old university spin-off.

Founded in 1999 by four NC State graduate students, Nitronex now boasts 60 employees. It was the first company to graduate from the business incubator on NC State’s Centennial Campus, and secured its initial $530,000 investment from the university's venture capital fund. Since then, Nitronex has raised over $34 million in venture capital.

Nitronex’s competitive advantage lies in its ability to use standard silicon wafers as a substrate for gallium nitride crystal growth. In tandem with related materials, gallium nitride is used to fabricate high-powered, high voltage, and extremely efficient semiconductors with greater wireless bandwidth. The company and its investors are betting that it will soon become a fundamental building block of the cellular phone industry.

"Poor performance of silicon transistors in existing base stations is the biggest limitation to power and microwave performance, and gallium nitride is much more capable than the current technologies based on silicon or gallium arsenide," says Kevin Linthicum, chief technology officer. "The next wave of wireless communications devices will require gallium nitride because of its power, linearity, efficiency and associated cost savings.” He predicts that when gallium nitride is brought to the billion-dollar wireless base station market, it could supplant the current silicon-based technology altogether.

Linthicum and his three co-founders, Mark Johnson, Warren Weeks and Thomas Gehrke, met in graduate school. All were research assistants working in the laboratories of Dr. Bob Davis, Kobe Steel Distinguished University Professor of Materials Science, and Dr. Jan Schetzina, professor and director of NC State's Solid State Physics Laboratory. Davis had already found that a lateral epitaxial overgrowth (LEO) process could reduce defects in gallium nitride. "But it was the students who ‘turned the problem upside down’ and came up with an idea to eliminate part of the LEO process and the resulting defects in the semiconductor that slow electrons," Davis remembers. "Those were exciting days in my lab after that 'aha' moment. They were beginning to realize they had the potential to eliminate a whole host of problems for the industry."

Linthicum says the team is still strong, but the challenges they face now are much tougher. "When you have a fast growing company like this, you have to think about not just materials, but market niches, new products, timing, economics, and employee personalities." The exact timing of Nitronex’ move to its new site in Research Triangle Park isn’t set, but Linthicum anticipates moving all operations as soon as the company reaches its capacity at its Raleigh facility. The company is preparing for a third round of venture capital, with eventual expectations of an IPO. "To grow at the rate we need to grow, we're going to need some pretty large capital infusions over the next few years," says Linthicum. "Rivals are coming on strong, but I believe we have the drive, focus, investor backing, and the team talent needed to bring gallium nitride to the wireless market first.”

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