The insatiable consumer appetite for laptop computers that can handle more programs faster is feeding the growth of NC State spin-off Silicon Semiconductor Corporation (SSC), which is poised for what executives call "a breakout year" in 2004, just two years after graduating from the NC State Technology Incubator.
SSC makes semiconductors that solve power delivery problems created by the multiple-gigahertz frequencies at which computers now routinely operate. Not only do the microprocessors require more power, but sections within them need to be switched on and off rapidly as users move from one task to the next, says SSC founder B. Jayant "Jay" Baliga. "Consumers want that power transition to be instantaneous, and computers cannot afford to generate more heat while doing so," says Baliga, a iDstinguished University Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of the Power Semiconductor Research Center at NC State.
Baliga is a soft-spoken man with more than 100 patents to his credit and a heroic reputation in the semiconductor industry. He has developed a MOSFET (metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistor) technology that occupies less space on a circuit board and switches power two to three times as efficiently as existing products built by industry giants like Fairchild, Hitachi and Philips. The devices also can be made with basic semiconductor fabrication techniques and utilize standard packaging. "A lot of times, you can pull off high performance by throwing a lot of expensive technology behind it, but we went the simple route to reduce manufacturing cost and development time," Baliga says.
Much of the development work in SSC's semiconductors was accomplished on Centennial Campus, where the company spent its first two years in the Technology Incubator. Baliga says being on campus allowed him to juggle his classroom and corporate duties, and Chief Executive Glenn Kline says the incubator's flexible lease terms let SSC stage its growth. That was crucial when the company abandoned its initial thrust into semiconductors for cellular phone towers in favor of the power MOSFETs--even changing its name from Silicon Wireless to Silicon Semiconductor and dropping its headcount from a high of 40 to 25--after the telecommunications market slowed faster than the overall economy.
SSC's power chips are now being designed into some products and are undergoing quality control tests for others, from laptops to network servers to automotive electronics. Baliga reports that the company attracted a lot of attention at last fall's Intel Developers Forum, where it was the only private company invited to make a presentation. After pulling in just $2 million last year, SSC already is halfway to its goal of $17 million in revenue for 2004 and is set to start hiring designers again. "This is a challenging but fairly lucrative market," Baliga says, "and we intend to make Silicon Semiconductor a leading player."
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