EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn., March 10, 2003 -- A small company here in the Upper Midwest hopes to make conventional electronic memory, well, a thing of the past.
NVE Corp. is researching, designing and manufacturing nanodevices that use spintronics, which taps into the spin of electrons rather than their electrical charge, to store or transmit information. The company is using the technique to develop magnetic random access memory (MRAM) products that promise longer life and more power than today's devices.
MRAM also promises to shrink products to a new scale while creating always-on electronic components for military applications, biomedical devices, environmental sensors and industrial and consumer devices.
"We have known for some time that electrons have two spin states, but no one had been able to figure out how to harness that to store or process information," said Daniel Baker, NVE's chief executive. Baker won't disclose exactly how NVE does it -- the process is protected by patents -- other than to say that the company uses exotic alloys to produce proprietary spintronic materials called Giant Magnetoresisters (GMR) that provide a very large signal (the "giant" in GMR) when subjected to a magnetic field.
Baker uses a cosmic analogy to explain spintronics' potential.
"If the solar system was an atom and the earth an electron, rather than looking at the entire solar system, which is the presence and absence of planets, you can look at the spin of one of the planets," he said. "Spintronics has the power to yield persistent electronics with nonvolatile memories. Devices can be so much smaller and faster than conventional devices today."
NVE's commercial products include a data coupler for telephone networks that is slightly bigger than a grain of sand but replaces five traditional network transformers several inches thick and wide each. The company has been working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to produce lab-on-a-chip biosensors for military use and is working with a major Minnesota medical company on implantable medical devices. NVE partners with companies such as Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and Agilent Technologies Inc. on commercialization of miniature memory and networking products.
Jeff Kaszubski, president and chief executive of NVE manufacturing partner Silicon Magnetic Systems, calls MRAM "the Holy Grail" of memory. "MRAM is going to find applications everywhere," Kaszubski said. "It combines the performance of static RAM along with nonvolatility. Once it hits mainstream production, it will attack every established memory market."
That could happen in as little as two years, according to Chad Bennett, senior equity analyst at Miller Johnson Steichen Kinnard Inc., who has been following NVE for a number of years. "Spintronics is definitely real," Bennett said. "It is still a little bit ‘Star Trekkish' but it is definitely coming."
Jason Sam, senior research analyst with investment bankers The Seidler Companies Inc., agrees that MRAM makes too much economic sense not to be a hit.
"On a cell phone today, you have flash, DRAM (dynamic random access memory) and SRAM (static random access memory)," Sam said. "With MRAM you can achieve very high speeds and very durable memory and have a very cost-effective structure. You don't even have to match DRAM prices, but the goal is to really be cheaper than the three memories you use today, all in one component."
Bennett said the MRAM market could top $50 billion within the decade. "NVE has one of the best patent portfolios in this space," he added.
"This is a revolutionary technology," Baker said, looking up on his wall to quote a line from a recent Scientific American article on spintronics: "It is an unprecedented opportunity to define a radically new class of device."
Nasdaq SC: NVEC
11409 Valley View Road
Eden Prairie, Minn., 55344-3617
Nonvolatile Electronics Inc. was founded in 1989 by James Daughton, based on research he had performed as a Honeywell employee. The company merged with Premis in the fall of 2000 (in a reverse acquisition) and was renamed NVE Corp. It began trading on the Nasdaq in January 2003.
Small tech-related products and services
NVE develops and manufactures MRAM (magnetoresistive random access memory) products using spintronics -- technology focusing on the spin, rather than the charge, of electrons. Spintronics can help reduce the size and enhance the power of sensor-based components relevant to military and industrial applications, biomedical devices, environmental sensors and consumer electronics.
Selected strategic partners and customers
In November 1990 the company raised $2.5 million in first-round funding, led by Norwest Venture Partners. A $1 million corporate round followed in March 1995, led by Motorola Ventures. In fall 1998, NVE completed a $200,000 second funding round, with participation by Norwest and individual investors. A third round with the same participants followed at the end of 1999, garnering NVE an additional $400,000. The company completed a reverse merger with Premis and went public in November 2000. In August 2002, NVE received a $365,000 DARPA award. The company began trading on the Nasdaq small cap market in January 2003.
Barriers to market
It may be a challenge for NVE and other MRAM-product developers to catalyze a major shift in the type of memory used by already-ubiquitous applications such as mobile phones and laptops.
"Lead the revolution and commercialization of spintronics," said Daniel Baker, NVE's CEO. "Make sure our commercial products are profitable."
Why they're in small tech
"Spintronics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Baker said. "It is a chance to revolutionize electronics, a great space to be in and a great time to be in it. Spintronics could provide the successor to the transistor."
What keeps them up at night
"I worry that we'll still have DRAM (dynamic random access memory) in laptops and cell phones in a few years," Baker said. "The potential for spintronics is really to make a huge improvement in the efficiency of electronics. Personally, as a user of electronics, I can't wait!"
GMR high current, wide dynamic range sensor
Recent news and publications
NVE gets DARPA grant to "spin" off biodevices
-- Research by Gretchen McNeely