1772 patent families to support a $80M business in 2012
Despite a cumulative raw wafers + epi wafers market that won’t exceed $80M in 2012, the corpus of related patents comprises over 1772 patent families and more than 350 companies since 1928. 83% of patents represent a method while 17% of them claim an apparatus.
Since 1978 the main technique to grow bulk single-crystals of silicon carbide is PVT: Physical Vapor Transport (seeded sublimation method) which represents 36% of published patents. This PVT technique mostly deals with the hexagonal polytype nH-SiC (n=2,4,6). Liquid Phase Epitaxy (LPE) is an alternative route to grow SiC (early efforts date back to 1961). It allows crystals to grow with low dislocation densities and at relatively low temperatures (attractive for cubic polytype 3C-SiC).
About 37% of patents claim a Chemical Vapor Deposition technique (CVD) which is almost exclusively used today to manufacture SiC epiwafer. The Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) is only mentioned within 1% of patents. The polytype (hexagonal or cubic) is explicitly claimed in 15% of patents. Numerous strategies to reduce crystal defects (micropipes, carrots …) and make semi-insulating material are proposed in 23% and 10% of patents respectively.
INVESTMENT IN R&D DOESN’T MATCH SALES REVENUE
About 350 applicants are involved in SiC crystal/epiwafer technology. They are mainly located in Japan (72% of patents) and USA (12% of patents). The five major applicants based on their patents number are Denso, Sumitomo, Nippon Steel, Bridgestone and Toyota. They represent about 35% of studied patents. The first US firm Cree Inc. occupies the 6th position. This balance is totally uncorrelated from the reality of the market where 75% of the SiC wafer business is generated by US-based companies, namely CREE, II-VI or Dow Corning. Japan is only responsible for 5% of the revenues (at least before SiCrystal Acquisition by Rohm). Same observations are seen in Europe and Asia (out of Japan) where the [# of patents/revenues] ratio is very weak at the moment.
JAPAN LEADS THE IP BUT KOREA AND CHINA TAKE-OFF
Japan is increasingly involved in SiC technology since the 1980’s. United States was the early player and still is active. In contrast, only 3 Japanese companies are commercially active in SiC material: Showa Denko (epiwafer), Bridgestone (wafer) and Nippon Steel (wafer and epiwafer).
China and Korea emerged as new players during the last five years along with the establishment of companies such as Epiworld (CN), TianYue (CN), TYSTC (CN), Tankeblue (CN), SKC (KR).However, these companies market shares remain very low at the moment.
SiC MATERIAL: A QUESTION OF KNOW-HOW?
It looks obvious that IP considerations do not create a differentiating factor for success in the SiC substrate business. CREE is leading this industry with about 50% market share on a worldwide basis, and has clearly the best reputation in terms of quality, diameter and reproducibility. However, CREE does not own the widest patent portfolio. Thus, know-how and patent numbers do not seem correlated.
The only field where number of patents and business size appears to be more balanced is Semi-Insulating (S.I.) SiC technology where both CREE (Vanadium-free) and II-VI (Vanadium-doped) have extensively patented their respective developments.
WHAT IS THE BEST RECIPE TO ENTER THE SiC SUBSTRATE BUSINESS?
The barriers to the entry in the SiC substrate world are very high: today state-of-the-art deals with 6” diameter, likely no-micropipe and very low dislocation density. Only CREE seems able to offer such a product today. Why?
First of all, CREE has been widely funded by DoD, DoE, DARPA and Navy contracts during these last 20 years, meaning CREE had comfortable position to handle lots of experiments and improve the technology for both LED and Power Electronics. So mastering SiC growth is probably a question of money, but clearly a question of development time, that cannot be compressed.
It looks reasonable then to think there has been a cross-fertilization between LED and Power businesses that allowed CREE to benefit from the LED mass manufacturing, which is probably less stringent than power at wafer level, to fuel the power electronics side. Finally, the R&D efforts have never ended, maintaining CREE leadership in the safe-area. Apart from receiving funding to develop the technology, the only options to enter quickly in the SiC substrate battlefield appears to be through M&A (Merger & Acquisition) of an existing activity or to buy a license and related know-how, paying royalties in return. However who is for sale? Virtually nobody is at this current time. Beyond the top five SiC substrate leaders, we don’t see a clear positioning of companies who may want to participate in a sale or merger of their business. Ultimately, we should pay attention to the new developments around LPE (Liquid Phase Epitaxy), done by Toyota, Denso or Sumitomo, as well as 3C-SiC (Cubic) which may disrupt the current PVT domination.
KEY FEATURES OF THE REPORTS
This study presents the patent landscape for SiC single crystal and epiwafer over a total of 1772 patent families. Several key patents are selected based upon their interest regarding the particular technological issues related to the SiC development, as well as their possible blocking factor for new competing development.
The report puts in contrast the patent landscape with the current and expected market status, highlighting the most active companies, the patent transfer and the sleeping IP. The document also highlights and describes the key patents that could possibly block new comers, for both crystal and epi-growth.
Thanks to more than 12 years involvement in the SiC field, Yole is able to present a unique cross-analysis between market dynamics, technology improvement, industry shaping and related patent activity.
The report goes along with Excel™ spreadsheets presenting the 1772 patents (Publication Number, Publication Date, Priority Date, Title, Abstract, Assignee(s) and Inventor(s), Legal Status) with direct link to the full patent text and pictures.
ABB, ACREO, AIST, Ascatron, ATMI, Bridgestone, C9 Corporation, Cabot, Cree, Crysband, Denso, Dow Corning, Ecotron, Epiworld, Fuji Electric, Fujimi, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Hoya, II-VI, Infineon, Kansai Electric Power, Kwansei Gakuin Univ., Mitsubishi, Mitsui, NASA, National Tsing Hua Univ., N-Crystals, NEC, NeoSemitech, Nippon Pillar Packing, Nippon Steel, NIRO, Nisshin Steel, Norstel, North Carolina Univ., Northrop Grumann, NovaSiC, Okmetic, Panasonic, POSCO, Rohm, Sanyo, SemiSouth, Sharp, Shikusuon, Shinetsu Chemical, Showa Denko, SiC Systems, SiCilab, SiCrystal, Siemens, Sumitomo Metal Industries, TankeBlue, Toshiba, Toyota, TyanYue, TYSTC, United Silicon Carbide, US Navy, Widetronix