Akoustis is aiming to pry into the smartphone market, taking advantage of the growing number of frequency bands used in communications. The start-up has designed high-performance filters that tune into specific bands to send data and block out interference. Now it is spending a little money on manufacturing.
The four-year-old company recently spent $2.75 million on a wafer manufacturing plant in New York. The foundry will create unique bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filters, whose single crystal structure hits higher frequency bands than other 4G devices. Its products also reach higher bandwidths while using half the power of polycrystalline filters, the company says.
Filters are becoming more important as smartphones break into more than 65 frequency bands. With enough filters, devices can simultaneously communicate over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular bands used in 3G and 4G networks. Their numbers are rising with carrier aggregation, which links frequency bands together to improve download speeds.
Smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung are moving on from simpler and cheaper surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters. The shift is toward high-performance filters, like BAW and temperature-compensated SAW (TC-SAW) devices, which better shut out interference. The emphasis is on filters with low insertion loss that can be produced in large quantities.
But large companies like Broadcom, Qorvo, and Taiyo Yuden have an edge because of their vast manufacturing output. Smartphone makers need guarantees on large orders of chips and that is more difficult for smaller chip makers. Many companies have also been aiming to package its filters, switches, and power amplifiers into entire smartphone front-ends, which hand off signals between radios and antennas.
For Akoustis, the recent deal gives it a modest wafer foundry in Canandaigua, New York, operated by STC-MEMS, a business owned by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York. The deal includes manufacturing tools for silicon MEMS, which can be used for making Akoustis' technology on 6-inch wafers.
Industry analysts point out that the number of filters inside smartphones is still growing, though fewer gadgets are being sold. That could prove a stumbling block for start-ups like Akoustis, which started out using contract manufacturers. But the company said that it could now bring its devices to market faster than if it had build its own factory.
"Since there is significant overlap between the tools and processes used to produce our BAW devices and silicon-based MEMS, transferring our process into the STC-MEMS foundry will accelerate the technology into production," said Art Geiss, a chairman of America Akoustis, in a statement. He said that a similar foundry would cost around $50 million to build.
"In addition, we believe that some of the foundry processes used in silicon-based MEMS manufacturing may be utilized in new ways to make further performance improvements in Akoustis’ single-crystal BAW RF filters,” Geiss said. The MEMS business brings in around $3 million in annual revenue.
Though the deal gives Akoustis some manufacturing ammunition, it pales in comparison to what other firms have invested. Skyworks Solutions beefed up with a $225 million deal last year to acquire its remaining interest in Panasonic’s filter division, including patents, engineers, and a joint manufacturing plant in Osaka, Japan.
Qorvo has increased BAW filter production at its Richardson, Texas, fab by over ten times since 2010. Qualcomm, the world's largest maker of smartphone chips, is paying $3 billion over the next three years to acquire a filter manufacturing business from Japan's TDK, which will give it all the components needed for smartphone front-ends.