01 Feb Smartkem 2023 review – Fundraising, development deals and new research
2023 was a critical year for Smartkem with $15m raised from investors and two new development deals. Ian Jenks, the company’s chairman and chief executive, looks back on the key events of 2023 and their potential implications.
As the New Year gathers pace, Smartkem chairman and chief executive Ian Jenks reflects on the company’s most significant developments of 2023 and their potential implications for the future.
He believes that the company is making progress towards its goal of transforming the manufacturing of mini display screens and Ian thinks 2023 was a pivotal year on the journey. “We think people are beginning to believe that we have something that has the potential to transform mini-display manufacturing” he says.
The Company believes that screens are driving the evolution of the technology we use, providing the visual displays for smartphones, TVs, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles and other, yet-to-be-invented devices. Smartkem’s electronic inks aim to transform the way these displays are built, making them cheaper and easier to manufacture.
The key event of 2023 for Smartkem was a fundraising round that brought in some $15m. This backing came both from existing institutions and new investors.
The fundraising process was difficult to navigate. Rapidly increasing interest rates triggered a banking crisis that hit the tech start-up industry when one the sector’s main lenders, Silicon Valley Bank, collapsed. Higher interest rates and concerns about the economy made investors less willing to risk investing in promising new technology.
“In this market, the successful fundraising was a significant achievement for us,” says Ian. “Let’s put it this way. I did a little jig round the round the office when we closed.”
The new capital is being used to support Smartkem’s two new development deals with Taiwanese companies which Smartkem believes will allow it to significantly advance the development and commercialization of its Organic Thin Film Transistor technology.
An agreement was signed with Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) – the body behind many of the major advances in computer chip manufacturing. Under the deal, ITRI will develop a commercial-scale manufacturing process for displays utilizing Smartkem’s OTFT inks, building on the development work originally done by Smartkem in the UK.
The second key deal is a Technology Transfer Agreement struck with RiTdisplay, a Taiwanese manufacturer of small OLED displays such as automobile tail lights. Under the agreement, RiTdisplay will use the manufacturing process developed by ITRI to produce small AMOLED displays as a proof of concept.
If successful, Smartkem believes this work will prepare the ground for its long-term aim – to use its electronic inks to make cheap and efficient micro-LED displays with improved quality, brightness and cost-effectiveness.
Today, LCD screens are used in about 70% of visual devices while the higher quality but pricier OLED screens account for much of the rest.
“But to engage in a world of enhanced reality, which is where I believe the market is going, we think display companies need displays that have much better performance and lower costs than either LCDs or OLEDs,” says Ian.
Light emitting diodes – LEDs – provide the solution, he argues, because they are longer lasting and brighter compared to existing technologies.
OLEDs today offer a brightness of 1,000 nits (nits is from the Latin “nitere” which represents Candelas per square metre). There is reason to believe that next generation displays will be capable of reaching 2,000 nits. To get to the brightness of daylight, displays need to reach 10,000 nits.
Smartkem believes that only micro-LEDs can provide that level of brightness. Each tiny micro-LED is one twenty thousandth of the size of a light bulb LED. A TV screen requires 24 million. Smartkem’s technological contribution is the development of a cheap, efficient process for fusing these minute micro-LEDs with the electronic circuitry required to operate the display.
Under Smartkem’s transformative process, micro-LEDs are placed on a screen surface and then the backplane is made on top of it, using photolithography to etch the film of transistors on top of the LEDs in a single, “monolithic” structure. Each transistor is connected to each micro-LED via holes. “Using our technology, a manufacturer would effectively print the transistors on top of the LEDs in a single processat relatively low temperatures,” Ian explains. This is far quicker, more accurate and cheaper than the current process which involves combining LEDs with a separate circuit board using, which results in less accuracy and more damage.
Demonstrating the utility of Smartkem’s technology in the existing AMOLED display market will help to publicise the process and promote acceptance of the technology by the industry, says Ian. The company believes that display manufacturers will be able to grasp the advantages of using electronic inks rather than silicon circuit boards in manufacturing screens once they see the process in action.
Another significant event last year was the publication of a paper in a top UK scientific journal, Nature Communications. The paper, by Smartkem in conjunction with the University of Shanghai Jiao Tong, is the first peer-reviewed demonstration of a monolithic micro-LED display where OTFT transistors have been laid on top of a wafer to make the display.
Ian is thrilled with Smartkem’s progress during 2023 and is optimistic about the company’s strategic roadmap. “Even in a market where funding is constrained by economic and geopolitical events, good technologies are still being funded. We believe we are one of those. And we’re moving from research and development on to prototyping for the market. We’re on the journey now,” he says.