OLED Startup Kateeva Hauls in Samsung as Investor

OLED displays have a lot to offer: screens can be flexible and thin, produce great images, and consume little power. But the high cost of producing them for large-format TVs has kept the technology out of the mainstream.

Menlo Park, CA-based Kateeva thinks its technology can bring the price down—and it’s got a new round of investment from a big name in consumer electronics to help make it happen.

The company said today that it’s raised a $38 million Series D round and added Samsung Venture Investment Corporation as an investor. Kateeva, which was spun out of MIT in 2008 to make OLED displays with an ink-jet printing process, has raised $110 million to date.

The money will allow Kateeva to put its technology for making flexible displays into mass production, CEO Alain Harrus says. Kateeva says it has been running pilot tests with an undisclosed company and, based on the results, says it can now scale up its equipment.

Conventional OLED manufacturing is done in a vacuum by stacking a series of thin film materials on a substrate, which is usually glass. The layers of materials are depositing by condensing a gas through a stencil-like device called a metal mask. But this method is slow and materials build up on the mask, causing defects.

Kateeva’s production method uses ink-jet printing—the same basic process as printing on paper. The ink-jet process, which has been pursued by researchers for many years, produces more uniform layers, has fewer defects, and can operate faster, president and co-founder Conor Madigan says. “Printing is just a really good way to do precision deposition coating,” he says.

Later this year, the company expects to put online a machine for making flexible screens, which Madigan says is cheaper than current equipment. It will deposit the materials needed to protect the light-producing layer of an OLED device from moisture and air. Normally, manufacturers encapsulate OLED materials with layers of glass.

Kateeva's equipment can ink jet print materials for OLED screens. Credit: Kateeva

Kateeva’s equipment can ink jet print materials for OLED screens. Credit: Kateeva

The company can also use its ink-jet process to make the OLED pixels themselves, rather than just the encapsulation layers. It expects to start testing that equipment, which would be used to make large-format screens for TVs, within six to nine months. “The customer pull is strong because there is such a strong desire to make a low-cost OLED TV and there really is only one good way to do it,” Madigan says.

The investment from Samsung, which introduced its first flexible OLED screen last year, is a vote of confidence in the technology, Harrus says.

Research company IHS says the market for flexible displays is expected to grow rapidly this year and reach nearly $100 million. But the bigger market is OLED TVs, says Harrus, who estimates it will be more than $1 billion annually after 2020.

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