Q&A with microLED pioneer Dr Tongtong Zhu

His Cambridge spin-out Porotech is the world leader in microLED
BizAge Interview Team
The Porotech team photo

Hi Dr Tongtong! What has your team created?

Our team have developed a technology called DynamicPixelTuning, or DPT. It is is the world’s first microLED design that enables a single microLED pixel to emit any colour, including pure white light. 

Because a single DPT pixel can cover the entire light spectrum, displays using it don’t need to use the traditional red-green-blue (RGB) sub-pixel concept. As a result, DPT can produce substantial gains in resolution of at least 4x, as well as improvements in brightness and energy efficiency for every type of display. DPT is very exciting for small form factor displays that demand high resolutions, such as AR, VR, and wearable tech. 

Why does the market need it?

The next generation of displays is set to be microLED-powered, which means DPT has a role as an underlying technology for just about every display that we interact with. 

DPT will improve resolutions, image quality, energy efficiency, and display reliability. And on the manufacturers' end, our tech dramatically simplifies the microLED manufacturing process, meaning easier fabrication and enabling greater economies of scale.

As mentioned, DPT is particularly exciting for AR, VR, and wearable tech. Devices that need high resolutions on a small form factor can benefit greatly from DPT, as it allows at least four times the pixels to be used in the same space.

Where is the business today? 

Having successfully demonstrated our DPT technology and the world’s first monolithic, full-colour microLED display, the team is opening offices in Hsinchu (Taiwan) and Chandler (Arizona) to work intimately with major manufacturers and fabricators to start deploying DPT at scale. 

We’re currently fundraising to enable our expansion, and working to build business relationships. The main focus of our team is growing to handle engineering and business development issues involved in partnering with major actors in the supply chain.

How did you research the niche?

We’re a spin-out of the Centre for Gallium Nitride at Cambridge University, which is part of the University’s Materials Science Department. 

Our founding team - Prof Rachel A. Oliver, Dr Yingjun Liu, and I - were researching the use of engineered porosity in Gallium Nitride. From our research, we developed a new material technology called Porous Gallium Nitride (“PoroGaN”), which could be used for many semiconductor-based applications. We realised that PoroGaN had a lot of particular potential for use in microLEDs. 

Conventionally, Gallium Nitride-based LEDs can emit green and blue, but not red. This means full-colour displays have to turn to a different material for the red. Mixing material systems gives rise to the need for RGB sub-pixels in displays, which means more complex designs that hinder performance. By contrast, PoroGaN can emit colour from across the visible light spectrum on its own via a modulated electrical current. 

This is something that major corporate R&D teams have struggled with for years, with tech giants like Apple, Meta, and Samsung investing considerable resources into the undertaking. Having been the first to succeed with this, we are looking at how we can help solve material and system integration challenges, allowing PoroGaN to be fully exploited to provide a full-colour microLED pixel.

What's your biggest strength?

We’re the first to the market with a fundamental technological breakthrough. Our technology is patented, and our team are some of the few people with the research and engineering experience to develop it. This means that we’re in a great place to be a central strategic partner for display and chip manufacturers.

What is the secret to making the business work?

In our case, our main challenge was taking the breakthrough of PoroGaN and solving system integration challenges to create DPT. Our focus from the start was taking a research breakthrough and developing a technology that can be implemented directly in the display supply chain.

Once we developed that, the technology speaks for itself - especially since we have a very targeted audience of supply chain actors. We’ve found that people can immediately see the potential of our tech, and are often on board once we demonstrate it.

My advice to people spinning out a research innovation is this: focus on creating a technology that allows your breakthrough to be implemented more broadly. This means you can patent your application and you won’t risk being disintermediated by other teams. 

How do you market the company?

Mostly through trade shows and directly meeting with supply chain actors. The key is getting in front of our target audience - once that happens, we often find our tech speaks for itself.

What funding do you have? Is it enough?

We raised a $20M Series A in February, and are currently working on raising a Series B round towards global expansion and mass production. 

Porotech is growing fast, and investment is needed to grow our team. We also need capital to build out clean rooms and technical facilities.

Tell us about the business model

In effect, Porotech is looking to be a system provider and key technology enabler, with our revenue coming from partnerships with manufacturers. We work with our partners to integrate DPT into their technology and processes, addressing the technical and engineering challenges that may arise.

This is a model that scales very well. In 2021 our revenue was USD $500,000. By the end of this year, our revenue is expected to have grown 22x to USD $11,000,000. This is expected to continue in 2023, with revenue projections based on anticipated partnerships currently standing at USD $35,000,000.

What is the future vision?

Ultimately, we hope for DPT to be the next foundation of all future displays. Whether it be TVs, signage, wearables, AR/VR, DPT is an underlying technology that we want every consumer to interact with. 

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
November 9, 2022
Written by
November 9, 2022