Developing quantum dots for next-generation displays
- QustomDot was founded in 2020
- NLO started protecting their IP portfolio from 2020, NLO started with transferring patents from UGent to QustomDot.
Some of the largest TV screens on the market today feature nanoparticles that provide a superior picture quality. The first developers of these quantum dots won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Today, QustomDot, a start-up founded by three researchers from Ghent University, is pushing their development further in order to enable next-generation displays. We talked to Igor Nakonechnyi, co-founder and chief product officer of QustomDot, about what makes their technology unique, and about the role IP plays in the protection of their inventions and the valuation of their company. "With our proprietary technology we can improve the reliability of quantum dots by orders of magnitude."
What made the three of you decide to found QustomDot?
"While we were still doing our research on quantum dots in Ghent University, Samsung launched one of the first products made with these, an LCD TV. It doesn't happen everyday in academia that the technology you're working on is also used in commercial products. That got us very inspired to start our own company. We knew this was the real thing, that there was a real market developing for this technology. We formed a team and were able to obtain a number of government grants available in Flanders to valorize technology and ideally start a new company. After a three year incubation period we launched QustomDot in 2020."
Is that not a long time to get a company started?
"Haha, I would recommend anyone to spend more time incubating. Startups, especially spin-offs from universities, tend to overestimate their technology readiness level. They always assume they are in a more advanced stage than they actually are. But technology that works in a lab will take much more time than you can imagine to also work at scale in real-life applications. Also, building a new company is just a lot of work. In hindsight we started a bit too early, in January of 2020. That was just before the Covid pandemic reached Belgium and everything slowed down.
For us that was a blessing in disguise, because it gave us some extra time to advance our technology, build our lab, hire people who then started working for us remotely, attract additional funding and so on."
Did that not mean you were too late in this market?
"We've always known we were not first movers. We spent quite some time to evaluate the market, how we should position ourselves, how to define our unique selling point, which applications to aim for and so on. Already at the beginning we decided to focus on the next generation in display technology. That's because quantum dots have an inherent problem with reliability. This helps to explain for example why Samsung introduced the technology in LCD TVs, which in terms of reliability are not a very demanding application. There is little value we can add in LCD TVs. But with our proprietary technology, that was developed during our time at Ghent University, we can improve the reliability of quantum dots by orders of magnitude. There is still time needed to develop that further, but the next generation displays that our technology enables are themselves also still in development. So from a timing point of view that is a good match."
How are you able to improve reliability of your quantum dots by orders of magnitude?
"Quantum dots are semiconductor crystals a few nanometers in size. You can think of them as tiny, tiny spheres with surface areas that are very large relative to their volumes. That's important because one single surface defect can effectively kill the optical properties of quantum dots. So we realized that a key factor in manufacturing quantum dots with superior stability is surface chemistry, which is exactly the focus of our university research group. In our time there we were able to develop a few concepts for stabilizing the surface of our quantum dots, as well as ways to incorporate them in the inks that are used in the manufacturing processes for displays that feature quantum dots. Together, these inventions are the basis of our IP portfolio.”
What are the next generation display technologies in which your quantum dots will shine?
“In TVs for example there are two main competing technologies. One is LCD screens that are inherently very energy inefficient, the other is OLED [organic light-emitting diodes, ed.], which is pretty expensive. OLED screens also have some issues with reliability and stability but their main drawback is that they cannot achieve a very high brightness. We gear our products to the development of microLED screens that will be both affordable and much more efficient than LCDs and have a much higher brightness then OLEDs. MicroLED screens can be used to improve current displays, for example in cars where brightness is needed for visibility on sunny days, or for applications like smartwatches where better energy efficiency means longer battery life. Samsung already has a range of TVs based on microLEDs that cost about as much as a luxury car. But the main and most exciting idea is to use microLEDs in all kinds of new applications. Augmented reality goggles for example that feature a tiny projector with super bright microLEDs that project images onto the glasses."
QUANTUM DOTS & MICROLEDS
The 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus and Alexei Ekimov for the discovery and development of quantum dots. This work started in the 1970s and led to a breakthrough in the 1990s, when semiconductor crystals could be produced a few nanometers in size. At this scale quantum phenomena give rise to the dots' unique optical properties.
Quantum dots are able to absorb high-energy blue light and emit light with a lower energy and thus a different color, say green or red. By varying the size of the quantum dot one can control the color of the light that the dot emits. In addition to biomedical applications and use in solar cells, quantum dots are particularly well suited for use in displays.
MicroLED is an emerging display technology in which pixels are formed by microscopic LEDs. Typically, only blue LEDs are used, even for the red and green pixels. This can be achieved by coating the LEDs with quantum dots to convert the blue light to the desired red and green.
What is QustomDot's contribution to the development of such applications?
"We produce the quantum dots of course, but that is the relatively easy part. The key contribution to the development of next generation displays is the work we do with a number of microLED developers. We help them integrate quantum dots into their products, and we get valuable feedback from them in return. The collaborations entail developing patterning or printing methods and manufacturing processes, as well as optimizing our partners' devices to get the best performance out of the quantum dots. This type of cooperation is common in the display industry and is usually covered by joint development agreements. We have a number of those, for example with Aledia from France, one of the biggest microLED scale-ups, and with MICLEDI Microdisplays here in Belgium. We have also started working with an established chemical company that can manufacture quantum dots in volume. We don't plan to become a large-scale manufacturer ourselves, we want to stay primarily a developer and integrator of quantum dots."
QustomDot is working on a rapidly developing new technology in a field that has attracted many players, from startups to multinational corporations. Do you have room to manoeuvre?
"Quantum dots are a very crowded field indeed. The basic quantum dot is not protected, the original patent expired long ago. But there are a few very big players in this field that hold a lot of IP, like hundreds of patents. So it is difficult sometimes to find our way, but what plays to our advantage is that we use quite a unique way of synthesizing quantum dots. So competitors' patents on quantum dot synthesis generally do not bother us too much. Our own IP portfolio strikes the balance between patenting some unique concepts and keeping our most recent procedures as trade secrets. We put much effort into fine-tuning our procedures, and you'd rather keep that know-how as trade secrets, as long as it's covered by your base patent. Nonetheless, last year we applied for two new patents, and more are in the pipeline."
“Our own IP portfolio strikes the balance between patenting some unique concepts and keeping our most recent procedures as trade secrets.”
Aren’t you concerned that your patents could upset some of the very big players in your field and that you might get involved in litigation?
“If we would indeed upset others in the field, I assume their primary response would not be to sue us but to find a way to work with us. Of course there is value in our patents as such, but there is also a lot of value in our intangible know-how and in the details of the procedures we developed. The expertise of our team is very valuable and in fact indispensable for anyone who would want to use our technology. The reality however is also that there has been quite some litigation already in the quantum dot field, but we haven't been involved yet."
Dietmar Hertsen, NLO: "From a purely legal perspective, patents are what stops others from doing what you're doing. But if you get to the point where you need to go to court to enforce that, you could say you have already lost. Ideally what you want is a red flag to go up if someone gets too close, because that creates an opportunity to talk to those people and try to find a way of working that is mutually beneficial. That is a way more interesting and business-savvy approach then fighting it out over purely legal issues. I think that's particularly true for a company like QustomDot. They will never cover the end-to-end workflow, they will always be working with others in their value chain." Igor: "That's a good point, and in fact we're already taking a similar approach in our joint development agreements. Managing IP rights and finding ways to split new IP that is generated in those collaborations is a key issue.
Fortunately, we've so far always been able to find common ground with our development partners. That's also important with a view on the future for QustomDot. New investors or buyers will want to have a very clear understanding of our IP position, including for example the agreements on IP sharing we have with each party we work with. Such issues can dramatically impact the valuation of our company."
Talking about QustomDot's future: where do you want to be in five years?
"In the much shorter term we're busy transforming ourselves from a pure development company to also become a more product-oriented company. In fact we're on the verge of launching our first product, a quantum dot resin with which we want to demonstrate the superior photostability that our technology offers. Our partners will use this ink to develop their process flows and use it for prototyping and evaluating their display technology. On our side this step requires scaling up our production processes a bit further, establishing quality control systems, and so on. We see that as an important step toward our longer term vision where we see our materials being used in commercial products. And five years seems like a feasible time for that. The first applications featuring microLEDs with quantum dots are being launched now. Within five years there will definitely be actual devices on the market, hopefully made with our quantum dots."