One key to the success of the Solid State Lighting and Electric Energy Center (SSLEEC) is its unique operating model. SSLEEC receives no funding from government, foundations, or private individuals; instead, every dollar comes from an ever-evolving, rotating consortium of industry partners. Those partners receive unique benefits in return for their support and provide many to the center as well.
Memberships are ostensibly for five years, and member companies gain access to faculty principal investigators and students, and can place a visiting researcher at UCSB, with research costs covered by membership fees. They also have the first opportunity to acquire intellectual property rights issued for advances developed while they are members.
Tal Margalith (PhD Materials ’02) is SSLEEC’s executive director of technology and works extensively with industry partners. “It’s rare to find a center where a group of professors is working very closely together on what is effectively a single umbrella material system — in this case, gallium nitride [GaN]–based optical electronics and power electronics,” he says, “and where a group of companies that are really interested in that topic find that the research being done is sufficiently applied to be relevant to their business enterprises.”
As a result of this symbiotic model, SSLEEC researchers secure reliable funding to optimize performance of GaN-enabled technologies and develop new applications. They gain further from industry’s on-the-ground market expertise, which can highlight promising pathways by which center research can find expression marketplace application. For their part, industry partners gain a unique perspective on the technologies that interest them.
“We’re working on technology that’s five to ten years out. That’s pretty far into the future for most companies, which are typically focused a year, maybe two years away,” Margalith explains. “This is a chance for them to get a look at something that is considerably farther out — and for not a lot of money given that the membership fees pay for their researchers to get their hands dirty in the technology and then go home, so that the companies feel like they know what’s coming.”
One reason companies don’t look far into the future of materials like GaN, which may be essential to their businesses, is cost. “GaN on GaN [gallium nitride on a gallium nitride substrate as opposed to, say, a substrate of sapphire or silicon] is a very expensive proposition for a company to get into if they’re not already established in it,” Margalith explains. “They have to buy the substrates and the machinery required to handle them and figure out how to grow the material and process devices. Working with us, the companies can get a good look at something in advance and see where it’s going and whether it’s something that will make their current tech obsolete.”
SSLEEC’s industry connection has also enhanced entrepreneurial thinking at the center, as evidenced by the numerous successful companies in the materials and semiconductor sector that have been started by SSLEEC faculty and alumni, as well as the more than three hundred (as of fall 2017) patents that have been granted for technology developed at the center.
The process of selecting topics for SSLEEC research involves give and take and collaborative consultation, Margalith explains: “We’re continually looking to see what topics are most relevant to our membership. We may increase our research in one area and then attract membership to enable that. For example, one promising area right now is micro LEDs, tiny LEDs that make it possible to emit light directly to a screen pixel rather than requiring filters in front of the LEDs to create the proper color, which diminish efficiency. The word is out, and companies are coming to us to see where we are in micro-LEDs.”
“Establishing industrial relevance is great,” he adds. “It brings funding for research and ensures that what we’re working on is important for someone. We want to make things that people care about.”