Turning “Black Silicon” Into Gold: SiOnyx Closes $12.5M from Bay Area and Seattle Firms, Goes After Image Sensor Market

Quick, name a semiconductor company in the Boston area that’s been getting lots of venture financing lately. OK, well, you already read the headline, so that one doesn’t count. My point is, there haven’t been too many of those—until today.

SiOnyx is the Beverly, MA-based semiconductor materials company that is working on commercializing so-called “black silicon.” This is essentially silicon that is much more efficient at absorbing light at certain wavelengths (and producing electricity) because it has been treated by just the right combination of laser pulses and chemicals. That means black silicon could potentially be used to make ultra-sensitive image sensors for digital cameras, night-vision goggles, and medical imaging equipment, as well as much more efficient solar cells. As my colleague Wade reported almost exactly two years ago, SiOnyx thinks it can revolutionize these fields, in part because its advanced technology can piggy-back on conventional silicon-based manufacturing processes.

Today the company is announcing a $12.5 million Series B financing round that includes new investors Crosslink Capital in San Francisco and Seattle-based Vulcan Capital, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s venture firm. Strategic partner Coherent, a laser company in Santa Clara, CA, also has signed on as a new investor in SiOnyx, and existing investors Polaris Venture Partners and Harris & Harris also participated in the round. The $12.5 million represents the completion (and sum total) of the financing round that Xconomy first wrote about in June.

“When we last talked about the company, we were vague about the application areas,” says SiOnyx CEO Stephen Saylor. “It’s a platform technology, and you want to evolve it and see where the value is.” (More on this in a minute.)

The SiOnyx technology is based on research from physicist Eric Mazur’s group at Harvard University. In the late 1990s, Mazur’s team first developed (and coined the term) black silicon in a series of experiments that used sulfur gases and femtosecond lasers—which emit sharp pulses of light that last only a millionth of a billionth of a second—to roughen up the surface of silicon wafers (see photo below). After discovering how well the resulting material absorbed photons, and delving deep into its atomic properties, the team decided to start a company.

Black silicon (photo: SiOnyx)

SiOnyx was incorporated in 2005, and the following year, it gained an exclusive license from Harvard to commercialize its process. In 2007, the startup raised $11 million in venture capital from Harris & Harris, Polaris, and RedShift Ventures. It also has raised an undisclosed amount of non-dilutive financing from government sources and partners, Saylor says, which brings the company’s total funding to more than $35 million.

So where is the first big commercial market? Try camera phones taking pictures in low lighting—at night or in a dark bar or restaurant. And other applications like night-vision cameras, next-generation automotive sensors for detecting driving hazards, security and surveillance, and medical imaging devices. The basic idea, as Saylor explains, is that black silicon gives you performance in the dark comparable to what a conventional image sensor can do in daylight. That’s partly because the material is much better at absorbing photons in the near-infrared part of the spectrum than conventional silicon detectors.

“We’re going where [others] are blind, and we enable you to see,” Saylor says. “There is no other way to deliver this kind of performance.”

The question, then, is whether SiOnyx can scale up its capabilities fast enough to get a foothold in the cutthroat semiconductor industry. “We can get there quickly. We’re in foundries, standing on the shoulders of the cellphone industry,” Saylor says. The key is finding the right partners—of which Coherent is a good example. The two companies have been working together on the laser technology required to make black silicon at a commercial scale. “If you have a platform technology, you need to align with the right partners so you’re not doing the heavy lifting yourself,” he says.

Still, SiOnyx faces plenty of competition from big players such as Micron, OmniVision, Sony, and STMicroelectronics. There have been lots of different approaches to making better image sensors, such as photosensitive films, using other types of semiconductors besides silicon, and so forth. But SiOnyx thinks it has an edge because it is fundamentally changing the way devices work, and it has proven the performance of its technique.

Saylor plans to use the new money to build out his “execution team” and take care of the company’s early customers. He says SiOnyx will be hiring around the world—including in Asia and the company’s satellite office in Beaverton, OR—in areas including engineering, marketing, finance, and business development. The company has more than 20 employees now and expects to double in size within 18 months, Saylor says.

As for the challenge of getting new VCs aboard in the most recent financing round, Saylor says, “There’s a lot of semiconductor history that says it requires a ton of capital. What makes us unique is we don’t have a massive device design team. We’re not doing an incredibly complex codec [chip] or next-generation processor. We’re using existing technology and enhancing it with our process.”

Lastly, he observes, “There is a great talent pool in the Boston area that’s underutilized. There aren’t many growth stories around semiconductors around Boston. But nothing scales like a successful fabless semiconductor company.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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