UKTN Podcast: Cambridge GaN Devices chief on spinouts and semiconductor strategy

Cambridge GaN Devices founder Giorgia Longobardi Image credits: StillVision / UKTN

How do you make the step from academia to entrepreneurship? That’s one of many topics that Dr Giorgia Longobardi, co-founder and CEO of Cambridge GaN Devices, dives into in the latest episode of the UKTN Podcast.

Longobardi co-founded Cambridge GaN Devices (CGD), a fabless semiconductor company, in 2016. It is developing transistors that use gallium nitride (GaN) instead of silicon to power electronics, with the goal of making devices such as data centres more energy efficient. The Cambridge-headquartered company has raised more than $28m in funding and currently has four products in the consumer electronics market. 

Longobardi tells UKTN Podcast host Jane Wakefield about spinning out a startup from the University of Cambridge, her experience as a woman in STEM and the role that startups should have in the sustainability conversation. 

Elsewhere on the show, the latest in a series of conversations with founders of high-growth UK tech companies, Longobardi talks about developing energy-efficient microchips and the challenges of bringing them to market, and delves into the political aspects of the microchip industry, including the UK’s long-awaited semiconductor strategy. 

Listen to the full episode here, along with all previous episodes of the UKTN Podcast.

A full transcript of the episode, which has been lightly edited for clarity, is available below.

UKTN Podcast with Cambridge GaN Devices founder Giorgia Longobard

Jane Wakefield:  Joining me today is Dr Giorgia Longobardi, founder and CEO of Cambridge GaN Devices. Thank you for joining me, Georgia. Before we get into your fascinating company, and the tech behind it, I just wanted to talk a little bit about your background. And it seems to me that in some ways, you had the dream STEM career – studied engineering, a member of the Royal Academy and now an entrepreneur. So my first question is, what have you learned from that, that you would pass as advice to other young women in an industry desperate to get more young girls involved?

Giorgia Longobardi: Yes, thank you very much, Jane, for this conversation. So yes, I started with a degree in engineering, but I had to say before that I was studying philosophy, Latin and Greek. So it was an interesting beginning of the journey, right? That’s one of the things I’ve learned, which is, if you like something, it doesn’t matter how much you know already, it doesn’t matter, what’s your background, you can always make that step and just put your heart and hard work into what you want to do and then you’re going to be able to do it. And I was lucky enough to be supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering. In fact, in my entrepreneurial journey, they have helped me in assessing some of the best minds in terms of entrepreneurship and access to workshops that have supported me grow. And that’s I think one of the things I would say that is key in this journey is always being open to learn, always being open to grow your network and being exposed to people that have been there already. Sometimes when you don’t see as many people looking like you, one might think and that’s to go back to the question of the young girls, one might think, okay, maybe it’s not for me. Well, it’s not like that. What’s for you or what’s not for you depends on what you want to do or not what the other people are doing. And that’s the big lesson I’ve learned in my journey.

JW: And you went to the University of Cambridge. Cambridge obviously has a reputation for spinning out a lot of tech companies. Silicon Fen, attempting to be an alternative to Silicon Valley in some ways. So tell me a bit about what it was like to spin out a company from Cambridge. And also what’s the scene up there like? Is it buzzing? Are there lots of startups?

GL: Yes, I think you said it right. It does feel like the Silicon Fen. And the more we go ahead, the more support to companies and to startups into academics that want to spin out. In fact, there is currently a programme called innovate Cambridge that is aiming at even expanding this Silicon Fen type of impact. How was it? Well, I was doing lots of research, I was doing a PhD then several fellowships in a college in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius. And so I had somehow the freedom to think about what I wanted to do. I wasn’t really linked to a specific project in particular during my postdoctoral years. And that gave me the opportunity to really read about new things and to explore parts of my research that weren’t necessarily related to something that I had to demonstrate for someone else. So I think the first thing I would say that Cambridge gives – and maybe that is a particular situation for myself because not everyone has a fellowship in the college – but that’s freedom to think, and to be the owner of my results, including from an IP point of view, which is crucial when you want to start up a company, it was unique. And it really gave me the opportunity to try. Because that’s what it is right? Especially when a company is based on research, you need to innovate, you need to do something different, and it has to come from new.

The second thing is the ecosystem really was absolutely supportive. Cambridge Enterprise in Cambridge, which is the commercialisation branch of the University of Cambridge, helping academics spinning out, they really supported me in doing the first steps. There was this postdoc competition, I think when I saw it, I just said, ‘alright, okay, I want to do it, I have an idea’. I didn’t know how to write a business plan back then I didn’t know what it was. That’s what I say often, I just bought a book about writing a business plan, but it had nothing to do with the semiconductor industry. So I read it. And then I went to this competition, and the first time I pitched it was all about electric fields and potential and then nothing to do with what an investor would connect with. And the competition itself, and the mentoring helped me somehow make the step between being an academic and being able to describe your research to an investor and a wider audience. So yes, the ecosystem in Cambridge is very supportive. And I think that was definitely one of the things that have contributed to the beginning of my company.

JW: Now let’s talk a little bit about that company. And I guess the first question is to try and dig beneath the technology a bit, because what’s really radical about you in terms of semiconductors is that you offer an alternative to silicon. So explain to me how that works?

GL: Yeah, and that’s, that’s brilliant, right? Because everybody knows silicon. And these days, everybody knows what a semiconductor is, which is a good starting point with reference to a few years back. So we work with a material, which is called gallium nitride. The beautiful thing about this material, which is fabricated elsewhere, because we are a fabless semiconductor company, but the beautiful thing about this material is that it’s the most efficient semiconductor material – energy efficient. So what that means is that if you do a chip with this semiconductor material, then you can save on the energy that is going through this transistor, this chip. And now if you imagine that these transistors these power devices are used in… the power supplies, for example, of the mobile phone, the computer, data centres, electric vehicles, where the power use is very high.

That means that every time you charge up one of these devices, you’re saving a lot of energy because it’s simply not wasted as heat. Every time you have… on your devices, you’re not using that energy, you’re just wasting it. And the beautiful thing about gallium nitride and what we do is giving a solution that can be as performant, as the silicon chip, as easy to use as a silicon chip, but at the same time, it doesn’t get as hot. So it doesn’t waste energy. And in a context of energy prices increasing or trying to reduce co2 emissions, that’s really quite key. Many people now talk and connect about the semiconductor industry, but not as many are still aware that power electronics and the energy transformation that is happening these days, is depending on power electronics and making power electronics more energy efficient. And that’s what we do. And that’s what I love to be honest, because you have research and at the same time because you’re saving all these power losses.

JW: And you talked there about one of the key aspects being that you’re fabless. Now fab plants take a long time to build and are hugely expensive. Given the world shortage of chips, I’m surprised that the Intel’s of the world aren’t beating your door down for this technology. Have you had interest from those more traditional chip companies?

GL: There are lots of companies nowadays that are looking into gallium nitride. There are the big giants in the power device world, companies like Infineon for example, they are interested in gallium nitride. What we have unique is within the chip is literally the smartness that makes the transistor easier to use and somehow more reliable. Because you have to imagine that in very small dimensions, there are lots of small circuits that can react if something doesn’t go as planned. And in an application without the high power, the smarter it is, the better it is because it makes it more reliable and safer. So that came out of years of research and a really deep understanding of the transistor, which is something that was possible thanks to the PhD and thanks to the research done at the university on top of years of experience in power devices in general. So I would think that they are interested and they’re certainly seeing as a main competitor, I can tell you despite the fact that we are a small startup, but they do absolutely see the value of what we have.

JW: Devices that are powered by your systems, they would be greener, they would be more energy efficient. What does that mean in terms of helping the environment and in terms of providing us with more energy for our devices? Because it’s a frustration of many people that they have to charge their devices regularly. Do you save them that job? What’s the change both for consumers and the wider environment?

GL: It is a very good question Jane. And it has two different answers, depending if it’s consumer or a higher power – so the data centres I was mentioning before. So for the consumer, if it has something that doesn’t waste too much energy, you can have your mobile phone or your computer charged up just much faster. Because for the same amount of time, you are transferring more energy to the battery of your appliance. So rather than waiting, I don’t know, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, it’s one-third of that approximately, so it will be 10 minutes. And the same type of logic can be applied to electric vehicles, for example, because the transistors for higher power will be used in onboard charges. So again, in that case, it wouldn’t be 30 minutes. It can take all the way to a few hours. So you can reduce significantly the amount of time taken to charge up the battery and electric vehicles. It has also another beautiful advantage by being more energy efficient, so getting less hot again, you can make the circuit much smaller. And that means that when you have something very big, like in an electric vehicle, you can save space, you can save space, you can make it lighter, and it’s something very much wanted by the manufacturer of electric vehicles, because you have so much electronics, and you have to look at the weight of the vehicle as well. So having something compact and more energy efficient, it’s ideal.

What’s beautiful about the impact on energy is when you talk about power levels for applications, such as electric vehicles but also data centres. Data centres are one of the most unsustainable technologies, I would say, because they need a lot of power. In these data centres, you have thousands of computers, and they are big, and they are hot, and they consume a lot of power. Now by using our transistors in those data centres, you can save at least 10% in energy bills, if you consider one of those big ones. And that is translated, I think I was making that calculation at one point to nine million metric tonnes of co2 emissions. Now, what’s that? It’s 20 million barrels of oil consumed per year. That’s how much you would save per year. So it’s a huge amount of energy saved. And that’s one of the things I would like to do going ahead, really trying to communicate how much just saving the energy we have is as important as funding alternative sources of energy. So they really have to go together, because we don’t have to waste what we have already.

JW: And you mentioned data centres there. I’m guessing that that’s going to be a focus for your company in 2023. Can you tell us a bit more about those plans?

Yes, we are partnering with several customers to deliver the products in the data centre market. We currently have four products in the consumer electronics market, and the one in a data centre is going to come up in the next month. The way in which this works in the data centre is that the value chain is much more complex. So the company has to enter into discussions with several players within the value chain. And that’s what CGD is going to do, what Cambridge GaN Devices is going to do in 2023. We have already signed a partnership that will help us develop reference designs for those power levels. One that is in the news recently was with Neways Electronics, with whom we also do solar panel investors. And we will continue for 2023 to go through the same, and really show how our technology can be adopted into this application much quicker because it’s easier to use and it’s smarter as I was mentioning before. It has all these unique circuitry inside that makes it more reliable.

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You’ve talked a lot about the benefits and it feels… they’re greener, they’re energy-efficient, they offer lots of great alternatives to the traditional way of doing it. Being fabless is amazing, and your investment is considerable. But I do question why it isn’t bigger. And the cynical journalist in me is asking, there’s got to be some downsides to this. Tell me about those. Is it expensive to manufacture? There’s got to be a catch somewhere here, right?

GL: It is challenging to bring it to market because first of all, it’s a new technology. So you have to convince the customer that there is an advantage to having something that is more efficient. And sometimes it’s not the efficiency per se, you have to demonstrate an economical advantage as well. And there are two ways to do that. And that’s one of the things that we are doing. Either you’re influence bodies that are setting regulations, in such a way that energy efficiency standards are set for accepting technologies like ours. So there is that part of the journey to be done, to influence the market. And the second is the work with the customers to show the value proposition and then the value pricing of the technology. It is more expensive than a silicon device, in fact, but the way in which the customers are convinced about it is one the efficiency, second the size of the circuit, and third the cost of the circuits. Because if you have something that is more efficient, and something that is easy to use, you can remove some of the components in the circuits that are needed to drive these transistors. So the overall system solution cost is actually comparable, if not better than with silicon. And that’s the work that we have to do with our customers to really show how it works. So it’s more work within the customer relationship than a silicon company would have to do. But with time they are accepting it. And it’s actually picking up quite fast.

JW: Chips have been talked about in the last year, probably more than they’ve been talked about for a long time. Because everybody’s noticing that things are just not available because of the supply chain. What’s your personal experience of where we are with that now? Are things starting to move? And are we going to see breakthroughs?

GL: Yes, I think that’s a very good point. In a way that was good it was in the news, because as I said, the general public now is aware of how important semiconductors are. But at the same time for companies in the business, I must say it hasn’t been an easy period. So ourselves as with any other semiconductor company, we had to very carefully plan with our suppliers to make sure that we could deliver to the customers, what they were asking at the time. There were moments of planning and extra support required by the supply chain to somehow overcome these issues. And I have to say in the past couple of years, that was the most critical period. But what then we have seen is that many of the foundries have invested in expanding their capacity. And some of the new companies have initiated also to the development of new foundries. So Intel, for example, is one of the examples, they have invested in that. But there are many other companies that have done it. And in some cases, thanks also to the EU chip act. Also the US bill, semiconductor bill. So things have changed. And I can see now already that the situation is much, much easier. So there is capacity for growing. And I think we’re coming out of that very critical period, which was mainly towards 2021-2022.

JW: You mentioned there about the US. And actually, the chip industry seems in the last year, whether as a result of the shortages and the sort of attention on the industry, or just part of a wider societal change. But it seems to be coming really wrapped up in geopolitics. We’ve seen the UK government reverse the takeover of Newport Wafer Fab because of its ownership ties to China. What are your views on that, and the wider picture around the chip industry becoming splintered along political lines?

GL: Yeah, I can see that. And I see why every single country looks at its own industry. Because semiconductors as I was saying are everywhere and the moment in which you don’t have them available, then the economy almost stops. We have seen it also with availability of cars, and the whole supply chain was disrupted a couple of years ago. My view is that I think the best way forward is to in a way join forces with other countries. I’m not sure that looking in particular if the industry within the country is not strong enough, looking at protecting it without having I think a strong relationship with other countries will be a successful move. I really believe that so far the semiconductor industry has grown thanks to the freedom to collaborate with other countries. So I can see that the geopolitical matters are playing a role. And of course, we’re very careful about all of that. But in particular, I believe that the UK government has to do something for the semiconductor industry, which is not just protecting their own industries. It’s about defining a semiconductor strategy. And that is what I would like to see. And there has been a lot of talks about that, I hope that is going to come up anytime soon. But having a UK semiconductor strategy is the most important thing to do before stopping any other things, in my opinion.

JW: The government has come in for some criticism for delaying the publication of its semiconductor strategy. UKTN has seen some leaks from it, such as subsidies for chip startups. Is that something that you want to see? What’s the nitty-gritty of that strategy? What should be in it, do you think?

GL: I think the semiconductor industry is very wide. So trying to have a semiconductor industry that would necessarily promote the whole semiconductor industry wouldn’t be perhaps as successful, because it would require too much investment. For me a semiconductor strategy within the UK should look at what can create some immediate impacts, so to gain the confidence of the public as well to then invest more. And that is one of the most tricky things to do, I have to say, it’s about communicating that the semiconductor industry doesn’t move as much as fast as many others. It’s like thinking at one point, I don’t remember whom but there was thinking about as investing in the train infrastructure. Nobody would expect the train infrastructure is put together in a couple of years. So it’s about communicating that investment is needed for the supply chain, in particular, to grow, but also giving a timeframe for impact that is not too short, and at the same time, not too long, so that the impacts can be seen. One of the things that I believe should be essential is also establishing partnerships with key suppliers. We don’t have strong foundries within the UK. And that’s the base, as you can imagine, of any semiconductor, so there isn’t too much fabrication going on in the UK. So having links with other countries or specific companies that are supplying the semiconductors should be within the semiconductor strategy. I think these will be the two points, I would say.

JW: And on that question of links with other companies, I’m just gonna go briefly back to the China question. UKTN recently revealed that Flusso, another Cambridge chip startup, had been wholly acquired by a Chinese firm, and I believe that you have shares in Flusso so you’re directly involved in some of this geopolitics. What are your thoughts on that?

GL: I’m not part of the management of that company. So I prefer not to comment on that situation.

JW: No problem. Let’s talk a bit more then about one of your big passions, which is sustainability. How do you think the tech industry is doing overall? We see loads and loads of innovations and so many startups now have sustainability at their heart. But you don’t necessarily see those startups impacting change? Why is that?

GL: I think it takes quite a lot of time to really change the way things are done. And it’s a matter of being resilient. So it’s proposing the change, and then influencing other companies to follow the same path. And that is a change of culture, which requires time. So one of the missions of CGD is to make a change, not only with bringing a much more energy-efficient products, but really showing how companies that can impact the way in which things are done for being much more sustainable. What we have, for example, within the company, also, when we did the office move, everything that we acquired, including the logo was recyclable and recycled. So it’s about doing things, it’s about talking about those things. And then people at first they will react, okay, maybe that is not needed. But then if they see that there is a movement, and things can be done, then they will also adopt these new ways of doing things within the office, for example, or as part of their governance of the company. So I do think that there is a change. It’s just slow because it’s a cultural change. And as with any culture change, it takes time and perseverance.

JW: You talked about influencing. One of the things that these tech companies have to influence is government policy. And we see government talks on the issue of sustainability happening all the time, most recently the UN’s COP27, when lots of important people flew in Sharm el Sheikh, but how many of those people were tech startups? We really need to get these tech companies like you and like other startups that are offering radical solutions around the table with government, don’t we?

GL: Yeah, I think this is a very good point. Also, because startups usually see things in a different way. And they are, as you were saying before, also trying to change things. There were a few startups at COP26. I was attending that, in parallel events, rather than at the main conference and I think we should open up, and in general, governments should open up to having more startups into these events. Because what I’ve seen is that even with fellow entrepreneurs, there is this willingness to change, this willingness to show how things can be done differently. And that’s one of the things that relate to having diversity within this particular sector, which is, if you have a startup, a startup is at a different stage of their of their growth. And there is that dream about making the change factor that is very important in these type of topics. Because you really have to dream, it’s such a big thing to change, that you have to have that power, you have to have that enthusiasm, you have to have that different way of thinking to make that change. So absolutely. I agree with you. I think more startups should be involved in these discussions.

JW: Now we started this discussion talking about you being a woman in a very male-dominated tech industry. I want to end by seeing what you think about the future. One of my guests on this podcast was Anne Boden, who has been in the tech industry for 30 years. And she said she doesn’t think much has changed. As a young woman, would you agree with her?

GL: That’s the one-million-dollar question. I think we are not there yet. I think things have changed. Depending on where you are, in the industry you are in, you can have more or less support. In my career, I was lucky enough to have many people that have supported me, and not really made me feel different. But we’re not there yet. And it all goes down also to the strength of the individual and the confidence of the individual. And sometimes that can be challenging. So quite a lot more has to be done, I have to say.

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