Material Matters: Technology Advances Continue to Provide Quality Display Business Opportunities


by Nicholas Darby

We are visual creatures – vision is the primary sense by which we survive and understand, which makes us unique in the animal kingdom. Evolution has provided us with exquisite optical systems. They are adaptively robust – the light-gathering pigments of our retinas can be traced to ancient halobacterium species. Our brains interpret two-dimensional binocular signals as representations of our world.

So, our insatiable need for better information displays appears to be, in fact, genetic. "Better" inherently recognizes that display technologies are limited not by biology but by chemistry, physics, and materials science. For those of us whose mission is to connect physical sciences to commerce, "better" defines the markets, investment risks, and returns. And to markets, "better" always means lower costs, whatever other attributes might be on offer from new materials science. Higher costs increase investment risk and decrease expected returns. Even with these constraints, novel materials science continues to create investment opportunities. Illustrative examples follow.

Aveso Displays, Inc., is a Minneapolis, U.S.-based company that makes flexible robust high-volume electrochromic displays. The chemistry is new; the manufacturing processes are not. Aveso's products are made on installed high-throughput printers; they can be integrated with other printed electronic components. The low-voltage high-contrast displays are produced in volumes and at costs that enable new applications in smart packaging, consumer diagnostics, electronic card displays. The market response has been gratifying. (Note: Aveso Displays was spun off from Dow Chemical in April 2005, and Dow Chemical is still an investor.)

Plastic Logic is a Cambridge, U.K.-based company, the second display start-up from Richard Friend's Cavendish Laboratory. The first was Cambridge Display Technology, Ltd., which makes lovely full-color high-brightness displays from light-emitting polymers. Plastic Logic's story resembles those of Aveso and CDT: new semiconducting polymers permit the ink-jet printing of transistors for active-matrix backplanes on flexible plastic substrates. Pairing these with front-of-display electrophoretic media from E Ink Corp.produces stunning, robust displays. The venture-capital community has responded with enthusiasm: Plastic Logic recently received a significant injection of capital ($100 million) in order to build a factory to manufacture these products.

ZBD Displays is another U.K. based-company with a novel low-cost technology that is defining a new and large market. By controlling topology and surface energy inside passive-matrix liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), ZBD produces bistable displays that require miniscule amounts of power. The company is developing these displays in electronic point-of-purchase (epop) modules, along with the balance of systems that allow retailers to dynamically integrate sales, pricing, inventory, promotions, and other data. Cost savings are significant, and the markets are responding with enthusiasm.

Our fascination with creating and controlling light will continue to encourage our understanding and control of materials. New – or rethought – physical phenomena continue to lead to novel information displays. For instance, the fascinating electro-wetting effect that Varioptic in Lyon, France, is exploiting in their brilliant liquid lenses is being adapted by Liquavista from Eindhoven, The Netherlands, into low-power displays. In Geoff Ozin's laboratory at the University of Toronto, self-assembled synthetic opal intercalated by electroactive polymers creates electrically defined Bragg reflectors; Opalux will exploit the effect.

Thus, innovation in materials is where true breakthroughs continue to occur in display technologies. We are often at our limits of taming the science, and development times are often at the edge of discomfort for venture investing. Sometimes, the materials win, but not often enough to prevent the creation of beautiful exciting products and profitable businesses. •

Nicholas Darby is Director of Physical Sciences at Dow Chemical Venture Capital, 2030 Dow Center, Midland, Michigan 48674; telephone 989/636-1846, fax 989/ 636-8127, e-mail: venturecapital@

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