Profs developing circuitry pick N.C. as home, C-U as research base

Profs developing circuitry pick N.C. as home, C-U as research base

URBANA – Wouldn't it be great if you could put electronics wherever you want?

No longer would they be constrained to rigid, bulky surfaces like wafers and glass. Instead, they could be put on almost any surface – rubber, plastic, fabric, even large-scale areas.

Imagine the possibilities!

That's the thinking of University of Illinois professors John Rogers and Ralph Nuzzo, whose technology enabling flexible circuitry is at the heart of their start-up company, Semprius.

The enterprise, formed about a year ago and once known as pSi-tech Inc., has come a long way. Over the last year, it has:

– Attracted a six-figure investment from IllinoisVentures, the UI entity that helps spin-off companies get off the ground.

– Hired Joe Carr as its chief executive officer and established its headquarters in Durham, N.C., where Carr lives.

– Taken top honors in the semiconductor category of The Wall Street Journal's annual Technology Innovation Awards.

Now, Rogers said, the company is close to sealing a joint development deal with Samsung involving LCD cell phone displays.

Even though North Carolina was chosen as the home for Semprius – largely because of access to senior engineers – Rogers said Champaign-Urbana will remain a research base, with several full-time employees doing work on the UI campus.

"The company is still at a very early stage, even though formal incorporation happened in early 2005," Rogers stated.

Three full-time employees have been hired in Champaign-Urbana – one in September, one in late October and a third to begin work in late January.

"We plan to retain space in the (UI) Research Park and to use the facilities at the Materials Research Lab through (the UI's) corporate facilities use agreements," Rogers added.

Plans call for raising more money through a Series "A" round of funding during the first half of 2007.

"Once the venture round closes, we will build out the research component that will stay here and begin to staff the project-oriented engineering efforts in North Carolina," Rogers stated.

Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering, devised the process for transferring circuitry to a wide variety of surfaces, in collaboration with Nuzzo, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering.

The process involves taking a thin surface slice of silicon wafer and using a "rubber stamp" technique to put the circuitry on surfaces ranging from plastic to fabric.

The university patented the concept and found that several large companies were interested in it. Semprius got the initial license for the technology, and the company "took on a life of its own" once it hired Carr as its CEO, Rogers said.

Carr was chief executive officer of OSRAM Opto Semiconductors in California and a senior manager for Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., before moving to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.

When it came time for the founders to decide where Semprius would be located, "it seemed the best thing to allow it to move to where he was," Rogers said.

John Regan, senior director for IllinoisVentures, said his organization was particularly eager to work with Semprius because Rogers takes commercialization into account in doing research.

"He's always thinking about making things that will be low-cost or involve fewer processes – making things that are manufacturable," Regan said. "He does groundbreaking research with an eye toward commercialization, so if it gets into the commercial world, it will be cost-competitive."

Regan said IllinoisVentures liked Semprius' technology because it was a "platform technology" with several possible applications ranging from radio frequency devices to flat-panel displays.

IllinoisVentures invested about $100,000 in Semprius, and the Illinois Emerging Technologies Fund, which IllinoisVentures manages, put in an even more "sizable investment," he said.

Semprius needs to accomplish several tasks in the coming year, said Regan, who is on the company's board of directors.

"Now that we've got off the ground and put a CEO in place ... we need to hire well, we need to start working with strategic corporate partners to develop the products they want, and we need to determine what the marketplace needs from this technology and then try to fill it," he said.

Regan said he would have liked Semprius to put its headquarters in Illinois.

"We'd love to keep as much of this as we can in Illinois, but it's not easy to do in some instances," he said. "We're going to keep some post-R&D activity in Champaign near the professors, but to land the CEO we wanted to hire, we had to move the headquarters to Research Triangle Park."

Just because the company is based in North Carolina doesn't mean that all of Semprius' future activities will be there.

"If we end up doing fabrication and processing, that may be done in other spots," Regan said.

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