Sixteen years ago A group of materials scientists and engineers from General Electric have come together to reinvent the circuit breaker. Now Menlo Microsystems, the spin-off commercializing this technology, is ready to launch its revolutionary new switches, with a huge impact on everything from 5G technologies to quantum computers.
Menlo Micro, based in Irvine, California, takes its name from the research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where Thomas Edison patented the first light switch in 1893 and where the company’s ties to GE were deeply rooted.
GE researchers worked in-house for more than a decade on Menlo Micro̵
With a novel alloy, Menlo Micro can reduce the size of the switches to 50 micrometers by 50 micrometers, or roughly the width of a human hair. This miniaturization can allow hardware manufacturers to create entirely new designs for a wide variety of products that previously required much larger components.
“The microelectromechanical system we’re using to make this … it’s not new,” said Russ Garcia, the company’s general manager. “The problem was – the first innovation is how to take a mechanical switch like a light switch or a relay and shrink it onto a wafer.”
Many companies have tried turning MEMs into contact switches and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, but Garcia said switch reliability and durability are always an issue. The materials science behind Menlo’s switches solves the problem, he said.
Menlo’s switches pack many, many MEMS relays onto a single chip that can function like a massive mechanical relay, reducing something the size of a fist to something the size of a microchip.
The company’s founders are of the opinion that, thanks to the massive size reduction and longer service life of the switches, the possible uses are virtually unlimited.
First markets for commercialization
“One way to look at this is through Edge and IoT applications,” said Chris Giovanniello, co-founder, former vice president of business development at GE Ventures and current senior vice president of global marketing at Menlo Micro. “What we think, and what most in the industry think about, are energy-saving Bluetooth and WiFi, as well as low-power processing for decision-making. Once you’ve sensed it, communicated it, and made a decision, you need to do something about it. “
Initially, Menlo Micro was spun off from GE with Giovanniello and co-founders including Chief Technology Officer. Chris Keimel and Jeff Baloun, Senior Vice President of Operations. Garcia, who saw the company’s first pitch at a semiconductor conference promoting the technology at GE, was brought on board by one of Menlo Micro’s early investors, Paladin Capital Group.
“Paul Conley of Paladin Capital sent me this deck and said, “Wow, there could be something.” We met Chris and then we met with the other Chris I was supposed to help with the strategy, ”said Garcia. He came on board as a founding member.
Current solid-state technologies, designed to make a difference based on the data, currently use more power than the rest of the systems they are tied to. Menlo Micro’s chips would significantly reduce energy loss and improve the efficiency of entire systems, he said.
“When you think of the light switch in your house, two metal contacts come together. If that contact is really good and clean then the current will flow through it very efficiently and if you turn it off there will be no current through and flow [nothing] happens at all, ”said Garcia, a longtime manager in the MEMS industry. “This contact is lost in a semiconductor. When you run a transistor with it the energy can flow through, but some of that energy is lost in the heat, and when you turn it off some of that energy can flow through. If you take the billions of switches, all of that incremental energy is completely lost. “
The benefits of the technology mean the defense industry is asking for the new switches to be used in radar, radio and satellite networks. Commercial applications include Wi-Fi connectivity, 5G cellular networks for radio frequency and microwave switching. Consumers have been able to see the switches in cell phones, meaning fewer dropped calls, higher speeds and data capacity, and longer battery life.
Menlo has already sent samples from its production line to 30 leading customers in the aerospace and defense, telecommunications, and test and measurement industries. The company has raised $ 44 million in new funds from investors, including Nest founder Tony Fadell’s Future Shape Group, to increase its manufacturing capacity and meet potential demand.
“The concept of an ‘ideal switch’ was theoretical – something companies have been working on for decades – until Menlo Micro,” said Marianne Wu, former head of GE Ventures and current managing director of 40 North Ventures who led Menlo Micro last round. “We are delighted to be working with such a dynamic and experienced team on a core technology that disrupts almost every industry.”
Think beyond 5G, defense and industrial IOT
In the past 30 months, Menlo Micro has completed the transfer and qualification of its products Manufacturing process, transition from a 4-inch research factory to a new 8-inch high-volume production line.
This means that the company can increase the production of its first products and increase its capacity. With the present qualification, the company expects to increase production to over 100,000 units per month by the end of 2020 and to reach production capacity for millions of switches per month in 2021.
Beyond telecommunications and defense, there are target markets in the areas of energy storage, automotive, and aerospace due to miniaturization – while quantum computer companies are interested in the technology because of its longevity.
“The relay is a large mechanical device that you can hold in your hand and that is used in many applications to turn the power to an industrial device on and off for your car and for motors that need to be powered,” said Giovanniello. “They are very difficult to integrate because they are so big. We can assume the electrical properties of a real metal to metal with a low loss connection and then when it is open there is an air gap through which no current can flow.. We can integrate [the switches] in completely different architectures. ”
Ultimately, Giovanniello said the go-to-market strategy is to focus on the “rule of 99”.
“We can reduce the size, weight and performance of the box [the switch] is received by up to 99%. That is a huge improvement in infrastructure and costs, ”he said.
For companies developing quantum computers, it’s not just about the size of the MEMS, but also about the durability of the alloy developed by Menlo Micro. “For quanta, there must be devices that work close to absolute zero. Semiconductors don’t work up to these temperatures, so they use old-fashioned mechanical relays [which] It can take hours to get back up, ”said Giovanniello. “Our materials are so robust that they work [at temperatures] except for a couple of Milikelvins. “
That flexibility, and the potential redesign of old industrial technologies that haven’t been updated in nearly a century, has allowed the company to fund $ 78 million from investors like Piva, the Paladin Capital Group, Vertical Venture Partners, Future Shape, and Strategic Investors like Corning and Microsemi.
“For more than 40 years the industry has been looking for a switch that offers the perfect combination of an electromechanical relay and silicon transistor,” Tony Fadell said in a statement. “[This technology] IA tiny, efficient, reliable micromechanical switch with unmatched RF performance and intuitively high performance at an output of 1,000 watts. As our world focuses on electrification and wireless communication of everything, Menlo Micro’s deep innovation is already causing massive cross-industry upheaval. “