New life breathed into Plastic Logic as Cambridge drops manufacturing for IP
Fifteen years and several hundred millions pounds after it spun out of Cambridge University’s physics department, the company formerly known as Plastic Logic says it now has the technology and strategic plan necessary to make a dent in a range of markets including Internet of Things and wearable technologies using IP from its groundbreaking plastic electronics platform.
It is the advances in the last two years in particular with organic transistors which are now stable, yet flexible enough to wrap around a pencil and powerful enough to drive displays, sensors and programmable logic circuits backed by a high yield, low temperature manufacturing process, that has persuaded Plastic Logic to split into two entities, one to focus on IP in Cambridge, the other on mass production in Germany.
The rebranded Plastic Logic Germany to focus on plastic electronics production from its multi-million pound manufacturing plant in Dresden while Cambridge concentrates on exploiting thevast intellectual property portfolio and plastic electronics knowhow it has developed over the last decade and a half under a new company, FlexEnable.
The main technology advances have come in the last two years and this new launch seems to have breathed new life into a company that was already operating a new IP-focused strategy, but whose name was struggling to shake of its history which included some of the biggest private funding rounds ever seen in a Cambridge startup and a high profile and ultimately doomed attempt to enter the ereader market.
Though in-house ereaders have been off the menu for a few years now, display technology is still integral to FlexEnable’s future, though this time end user product development will come from collaborators. The company that once attempted to build a fully vertically integrated business that went from the materials science right through to the customer’s palms will now become an enabling partner to companies.
Operating through three divisions, FabEnable, ProductEnable and MaterialEnable, the company will either help manufacturers upgrade their own lines to integrate flexible electronics production, work with companies to develop their own products based on flexible electronics or get involved at a much more fundamental scientific level with companies or research groups working to develop new flexible materials.
Though Dresden remains a large scale manufacturer of plastic electronics, FlexEnable will provide prototyping and small scale manufacturing.
The company’s current technology is able to produce 25 micron thick substrates that can be used to create a transistor with a quarter of a millimetre bend radius, a curvature with unique mechanical properties according to former Plastic Logic CEO and now FlexEnable’s CEO, Indro Mukerjee. The fact that the production process doesn’t involve temperatures much over 80ºC not only means improved yields, but that it can be integrated with a wide range of flexible materials.
The organic thin film transistor technology is now capable of driving active matrix organic LEDs, LCD and many other display and sensor materials. Programmable array logic circuits, which can be programmed for different functions by digital printing, have been created in flexible plastic while a range of sensor array technology has been developed for use in medical devices, contactless control of devices and gesture recognition.
FlexEnable has come up with a number of show products to attract potential partners and to demonstrate some of the directions the technology could go. These include a wearable display on the sleeve of a waterproof jacket which could be used to display a map, a wrap around display for smartphones that can become a tablet, or a smart credit card that can have an active matrix display, fingerprint sensors and logic on a single sheet of plastic.
Revenues are already being generated by FlexEnable technology licenses and the company has worked with Samsung owned NovaLed on fully flexible Amoled displays.
All Plastic Logic’s 45 or so Cambridge staff are understood to have transferred to FlexEnable which will continue to be run by Mukerjee and which is still almost entirely owned by Russian state-owned nanotech company, Rusnano.
Funding for the new venture comes from existing investors, but Mukerjee says the company will undertake a funding round soon with the support of Rusnano. Russia will no longer be a venue for plastic electronics manufacturing, as was planned when Rusnano invested $150m with promises of up to $500m in equity funding and loans to follow, but it will house a focused electronics centre to be shared with a consortium of other companies.