Google Ventures Leads $20M Round for Transphorm to Battle “Hidden Tax” in Power Conversion

2/23/11Follow @wroush

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terawatt-hours in energy in power conversion—the losses we are tolerating today are more than all of the electrical energy generated by renewables. The fact of the matter is, the need exists and therefore the market exists.”

But to satisfy that market, Transphorm had a lot of work to do. For one thing, gallium nitride isn’t available in nice, cheap wafers the way silicon is. The material has to be grown on a foreign substrate—and that always raises problems with strength and stability. Secondly, while gallium nitride performed great under constant electrical current in the lab, it wasn’t so hot at handling switched current—which was a problem, since it’s only by switching very fast that today’s power converters can handle high voltages. “There was what is called in field a problem of dynamics loss or dynamic resistance, when you switched the devices,” says Mishra. “So that had to be tackled.”

Finally, switching gallium nitride transistors very quickly at high amperage created a lot of electromagnetic noise—far more than FCC regulations would allow. “You can’t afford to have noise generated that actually interferes with everything else around you, so we made sure that the circuits and packages we developed were such that no additional electromagnetic interference was generated,” says Mishra.

In other words, building practical high-efficiency power converters wasn’t just a matter of replacing silicon with gallium nitride. Transphorm had to find engineers who could put gallium nitride power switches into circuits, ad who could put the circuits into modules that manufacturers can in turn build into their hardware. “To attack the problem you need a symphony orchestra, not a one-string band,” Mishra says. “You have to innovate in all aspects of this value chain, and our team has experts in all of these domains.”

As important as the efficiency gains from its converters could be, the 75-employee startup and its investors are equally excited about the material’s size advantages. Makers of solar modules, and hybrid and electric vehicles are all looking for components that will make their systems smaller and lighter. “This is about higher efficiency, smaller size, and lower EMI [electromagnetic interference],” Komisar said at today’s press conference. “This is not just a better-faster-cheaper enterprise. It is a brave new world enterprise.”

It’s hard to gauge the actual scale of the market opportunity Transphorm is pursuing. But in the data center market alone, the power savings from improved efficiency could vastly outweigh the cost of new gallium-nitride-based power converters, which Mishra says will be higher than traditional components. Electricity is the single largest cost at most data centers, exceeding the expense of servers themselves; by some estimates, burning fossil fuels to generate the power that data centers suck up puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the nation’s entire fleet of aircraft.

Colleagues say that Mishra is widely respected not just as an engineering whiz when it comes to gallium nitride, but as a nice guy and an expert entrepreneur. “Frankly, for us, when we first invested, it was based on the people,” says Lux’s Hébert. “They have made us look like geniuses for that strategy. Umesh and Primit are not only technically superior, but really as individuals they believed they could create a great company in this area. We have always been believers in energy efficiency, but a lot of what’s been accomplished around power conversion is a testament to them as individuals and their ability to recruit a fantastic team to demonstrate the technology and prove it out from a business perspective.”

Xconomy goes the extra mile to bring you in-depth startup coverage. Compare this story to:

Energy Efficiency Startup Transphorm Emerges From Stealth, Raises $20 Million From Google Ventures (Tech Crunch)
Google’s investment in Transphorm could be good news for electric cars (VentureBeat)
Transphorm Unveils Efficient Power Module, $38M from Kleiner, Google (GigaOm)
Transphorm Nabs $20 Million From Google Ventures, Kleiner (AllThingsDigital)
Google Ventures Backs Transphorm’s Efficient Power Conversion Technology (Fast Company)

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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