How an engineer’s audio obsession led to an $830-million exit in the semiconductor industry
Semiconductor darling GaN Systems has been the talk of the tech town. In early March Germany’s Infineon purchased it for $830-Million. Although this was one of the largest exits in the history of the Canadian semiconductor sector, its journey was anything but traditional. In fact, the cleantech company didn’t technically start in a lab at all, but in the garage of one of its founders, the late engineer John Roberts.
Accomplished in his field, Roberts, who was 65 at the time, was an audiophile trying his hand at building the world’s best speaker in his twilight years. What he soon discovered was the audio speakers in the early 2000s were limited by the decades-old silicon chipsets in their amplifiers. These chipsets created distortion, affecting the output sound.
To solve that problem, Roberts went to work but realized that he would need to develop an advanced amplifier chipset that switched on and off more efficiently. This required a new substrate to replace the silicon, and he discovered that gallium nitride was an effective, although expensive replacement. Along the way, he and his long-time partner, former chief executive of GaN Systems Girvan Patterson, discovered they were on to something that could make a lot more noise than better speakers.
As recently covered in a compelling Twitter thread from Roberts’ son Matt, currently a Partner at ScaleUP Ventures in Toronto, his father’s engineer instincts overtook his passion for sound and into a deep exploration – and years of hard work – into innovative power applications for gallium nitride.
Given their previous track record (both Roberts and Patterson were both accomplished founders, entrepreneurs, and engineers) with demonstrated progress, they raised angel rounds of $135K and $70K in 2009 and 2010. But they needed a seed round for their next challenge: they had to build a test chip to see if they could make their solution small enough to be viable. Early-stage support from Ontario Centre of Innovation in 2011 helped fund the first foundry runs, mounting substrate fabrication and gold plating, testing, as well as filing for patents.
As Matt noted on his thread, “Cost is a function of size on a chip wafer. (More chips from a wafer the cheaper they are). If he made the amplifier smaller, he could make them cheaper so he began redesigning his chip to be smaller so it would take up less room on the wafer.”
Not only did it work, but it was also 4 times smaller and roughly 25% of the cost of the competition. This was GaN System’s Island Technology that made gallium nitride semiconductors much smaller and cheaper and more viable commercially in industries that included consumer electronics, automotive, renewable energy and more. It led to a Series A round of funding in 2011, followed by years of growth.
In 2016, John Roberts and Girvan Patterson both retired and the company took on new leadership. In the years since, the company has continued to grow and demonstrate leadership in the semiconductor field, most recently raising $189 million in 2021 to accelerate innovation and adoption of its technology across automotive, consumer, industrial, and enterprise markets, being listed on the Deloitte Technology Fast 500™ and being named to the 2023 Global CleanTech 100 (they were also named in 2019). All of which led up to this month, when they were purchased by German giant Infenion.
Matt shared in his thread, “John was and would continue to be very proud of what GaN Systems and his colleagues accomplished. In particularly, Jim Witham who led the company after both he and Girvan retired.”
OCI is proud to have supported John and Girvan’s efforts from day one and has continued to support the development and commercialization of GaN Systems’ innovative technology. In 2016, OCI supported an R&D collaboration with Carleton University to develop an adaptive modification technique for enhanced yield that led to revenue and job growth. Recent OCI-supported projects include an R&D collaboration with Queen’s University to develop high voltage GaN devices with integrated drive circuitry and another with Carleton University to enhance PFC and LLC resonant converter designs and optimize the controller algorithms.
The Ontario-based company continues to be a world leader in GaN power semiconductors, and their footprint is far and wide: their products are used in faster-charging laptop cables, to power more efficient data centre applications, onboard chargers in electric vehicles, more efficient renewable energy storage to name a few. And wouldn’t you know it, they even produce audio amplifier kits, 13 years after their company was founded to build them.
Unfortunately, John Roberts passed away in 2021, and didn’t get to see this chapter of the company come to pass. Along with his partner and co-founder Girvan Pattinson, their legacy as true Canadian trailblazers in the semiconductor industry is secure – and speaks volumes about following your passion, the importance of funding innovation and his son Matt reminded us all, “that great entrepreneurs find paths we never see, it only makes sense in hindsight.”
Director, Communications & Strategy
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