On Episode 73 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with entrepreneur Simon Wainwright, president of Freebird Semiconductor, about solving power management problems with emerging technologies.

Show Notes

Freebird Semiconductor’s Website
Contact Freebird Semiconductor
Find Simon Wainwright on LinkedIn
What is GaN?
Freebird Semiconductor to attend and present at 2018 Space Parts Working Group
Incredible Hulking Facts about Gamma Rays
Displacement Damage Testing
The Radiation Laboratory at UMass Lowell
Texas A&M University – The Cyclotron Institute
Die Adaptor (FDA) Products from Freebird Semiconductor
What Is Hermeticity?
Link to SaviorLabs Assessment


Three Types of Radiation Testing
Device Performance Based on Testing
The Entrepreneurial Rollercoaster Day
How Freebird Semiconductor Got It’s Name
What Do We Do?
Should You Start Your Own Business? Advice From Simon
The Three Freebird Semiconductor Products
What is Hermetically Sealed?

Solving Power Management Problems with Emerging Technologies

Three Types of Radiation Testing

Paul: Alright, so you do radiation testing too. Now that sounds exciting/scary. How do you do that?

Simon: There are essentially three basic different types of radiation. So I’ll run you through each of those three. So the first one is gamma radiation. It sounds like something out of a comic book, doesn’t it?

Paul: Yeah. Exactly. Well, I think there was the Hulk, right?

Simon: That’s right. That’s what I was talking about. All the components turn green and break out of their packages.

Paul: So yeah. If I see some of your employees running from the building like that, we’ll know. Okay.

Simon: That’s when we ask them to do the radiation testing. So the basic gamma, you have a radioactive source, which essentially looks like a pencil shrouded by lead. And then you lift the lead up, and it emits radiation, and you put your parts in the path of that radiation, and you can measure the dose that it receives. And that’s called total ionizing dose. Gamma radiation, that’s one of the three types.

And you can do high-dose rates. So you can do a very quick rate of exposure, or you can do a slower dose rate. We don’t see any difference. So we do the high dose rate so we can test things faster.

Then we have displacement damage, which is essentially neutrons. So you bombard these with a flow of neutrons and that essentially is like trying to see whether the neutrons actually displace the lattice, the crystal lattice of the things causing electrical defects and therefore non-functionality of the part. We actually do both of those things locally. The neutron, the displacement damage in the University of Lowell and the gamma radiation in a local company out in Chelmsford.

Paul: Oh, cool.

Simon: And then the third one is ion. Ion bombardment essentially. So it’s called single event effect. So there are different types of single-event effects. We go down to Texas A&M, so Texas. I think it’s agricultural and mechanical university down in…

Paul: I, I think it’s agriculture and mining actually. But yeah…

Simon: I just see the bills.

Paul: I know. I understand.

Simon: So we, we go down to TAMU and we use their cyclotron. So they have this almost like a big washing machine full of lots of different ions and atoms. They accelerate them around in a circle, and then basically, they open a door and certain ions of a specific weight leave. So you can, by opening the door at different energy levels, so to speak, you can tune it in so that different ion species come out. So we test with two different ions species — xenon and gold. So we fire gold at our devices while they’re biased, and that’s the same as if you get a… You imagine a swimming pool full of ping-pong balls, you get a bowling ball, and you throw it in, that’s what we’re trying to simulate to see how that affects the structure.

Paul: And so you’re doing these because I would imagine there’s some mapping to real world events.

Simon: It’s the closest we can get on Earth to maybe an ion that’s floating around in space from a solar flare, for instance, so you get stray ions that are just floating around, and you may get hit by an ion, an ion atom, or ion, at least.

Paul: An ion. Yeah, exactly. So that’s how it maps back. So there are these things in space that are just moving around and you need to be, if you’re in the way, you need to be hardened to that. Or certainly understand the failure mode before you send it there.

Simon: Exactly.

Paul: Wow. Who’d a thunk?

Simon: Yeah. Exactly. So we’ve had great success with that in fact. So we’re very proud of our results for that in our product portfolio.

Device Performance Based on Testing

Paul: And is one device compared to the next device going to have different performance based on that and what is the different? If it is different, what would make it different?

Simon: I would say, if you buy a commercially available device of anything, yes, that is the case. But if you buy a specifically radiation-hardened parts, then no. We have to eliminate that variability upfront. Otherwise, we don’t have a business. We’re playing roulette. Do we get good lots?

Paul: But is it intrinsically because of the way you built it? Is it the materials you used? What makes the cake taste good each time? Is it because you’ve used good flour, good sugar, you know, all the precise recipe, or is it something else?

Simon: No, we keep a very tight control. Firstly, there is a difference in the process, which I won’t go into the details, but there is a difference in the process that allows us to have this performance, which we worked very closely with EPC to develop. Then secondly, we do a lot, as I said, of screening, a lot of testing. So we have a very, very tightly controlled process. And then, not only do we have a tightly controlled process for the chips that come off the line, we then verify that with all these screenings and conformance inspections and life tests before we actually ship.

Paul: So are you going to be like Intel where you take the chips that are partially failed and just make it an i3 and an i5 and different clock frequencies?

Simon: I’m saying nothing about Intel. I don’t want a lawsuit from Intel.

Paul: Well, but so, I mean, is there a market for your underperforming parts?

Simon: Yeah. We convert them into commercial parts. Electrically, they will be within spec or they won’t even get that far. So then people can use them for doing their tests, their engineering tests on a breadboard or something like that. So that can use that, and they don’t have to go through all of the radiation testing. Electrically, they will be the same. It’s just that they would not be as rugged, radiation-wise.

The Entrepreneurial Rollercoaster Day

Paul: So let’s get back to the entrepreneurial idea, the business idea. It’s, again, when you wake up Monday morning, you’re not employed. You gotta get up and do the work. Have there been any anecdotes you can think of that are like, “Oh, my gosh. What have I gotten myself into?” Or…

Simon: Every day is a rollercoaster. Every high is very high. Every low is very low because you know that nobody else is going to step in and, and solve it for you. And that’s the same, I imagine, in any business. And, there’s nowhere to hide.

Paul: That’s true.

Simon: There’s nowhere to hide. You are it. You are it. You know, the buck stops with you, and that’s the biggest, you know. If you work for somebody else, you can go out. You go to work. You come home, and you can forget about it until the following day. We, we can’t turn off. We can’t turn off.

Paul: That’s true, but it is fun.

Simon: Oh, absolutely.

Paul: It is very much fun.

Simon: You know, it gives you a certain flexibility in life as well, I would say, as well.

Paul: You know, what I find is it’s the creativity that you’re allowed to do that getting things to work. It, it’s complicated. It’s hard getting people to do what they’re supposed to do, I can imagine. So you’ve got not only the people part, but you’ve got the technology part. We’re in a world where we do some creative work, but we make technology work. So we’re not like inventing the computers. We’re just making them work, and you’re inventing the computer as well as making it work. And you’ve got to manage the people doing it.

Simon: At least the power supply.

How Freebird Semiconductor Got It’s Name

Paul: A least the power supply. Yeah, exactly. Very cool. So we’ve been talking with Simon Wainwright, president of Freebird Semiconductor. What’s with the name?

Simon: Oh, there are three different reasons, and depending on who you are, I give a different reason. So I’ll go through each of them. Please, nobody who is listening to this tell anybody else. This is secret. So firstly, the three owners, the three founders worked at the same company, and we left the company, so we were free birds. So we spread our wings and we left. That, that’s one.

Paul: That’s one story. That’s a good story. Okay.

Simon: That’s one of the versions. The second version is that a bird is a colloquialism in the space industry for a satellite. So it’s a free bird.

Paul: They’re certain not free, though.

Simon: Ask the accountant about that. So yeah. So it’s a bird. It’s a colloquialism for a satellite, is a bird.

And then the third one is that, you must have heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd, so there you go.

Paul: Well, what about Lynyrd Skynyrd?

Simon: We’re all from that era. We were in a bar in California, and, “What should we call the company?”

Paul: Did the song come on?

Simon: What came on the jukebox?

Paul: Did it really?

Simon: Freebird.

Paul: Are you serious?

Simon: Absolutely, yeah.

Paul: Oh, that’s cool.

Simon: But you’d be surprised how effective the name is because a lot of people associate it with the song and they say, “Ah…” And of course, we’re cool guys, so when we talk to procurement guys or whatever, they all remember that.

Paul: That’s cool.

Simon: But all three of the reasons I gave you really contributed to the name, I’d say.

Paul: I would have never imagined you could have gotten even the domain name nowadays. You know there are so many that are taken. That’s great!

Simon: Nobody want to be a freebird semi.

Paul: Semi freebird. Fascinating.

What Do We Do?

Paul: So yes, we’re sitting here with Simon Wainwright, president of Freebird Semiconductor. What would you say, if you were talking to the technical person? Say, “Hi, I’m Simon from Freebird Semi. We do…” You said GaN?

Simon: We solve power management problems with emerging technologies such as gallium nitride.

Paul: Wow. So that’s your elevator pitch.

Simon: That is what we do.

Paul: That’s what we do?

Simon: That’s what we do.

Paul: And is that what you tell nontechnical people?

Simon: I tell them that we’re faster, smaller, better, and we’re even nice guys.

Paul: We’re even nice guys. Okay.

Should You Start Your Own Business? Advice From Simon

So is there anything you’d like to cover, some specific things we haven’t talked about that you’d be interested…?

Simon: About business?

Paul: Yeah, business or…

Simon: No, I think it’s just a great way of making a living. We’re having fun. If there are people out there debating whether to become entrepreneurs or not, then do it, is the answer. But beware. You’re know, you’re going to have stressful nights. You know, it’s going to be tough. It’s not easy.

Paul: Have you had any good mentors, people that you’ve gone to when you’ve been like, “What do I do in this situation?” Or have you been pretty much organic?

Simon: No, we’ve been pretty much organic. The three of us are really tight. You know we shout at each other, but we hug each other as well, you know. So it’s good to have that backup of your other two partners, whichever of the three you are, you always have the backup of the other two partners.

Paul: That’s a good point. So would you recommend that over going it alone?

Simon: I’m not sure to be honest. I’ve done both. They’re both equally as good.

Paul: Or as difficult.

Simon: Yeah.

Paul: It’s not like it solves all your problems, having two other partners.

Simon: No. It doesn’t solve all your problems. Sometimes it creates them. You know, the thirds the thirds the worry.

The Three Freebird Semiconductor Products

Paul: So, how many parts do you have, model parts do you have? Or what’s your portfolio?

Simon: So our portfolio, we have three main products. Well, no, three main product ranges, ranges. So we have hermetically-sealed parts.

What is Hermetically Sealed?

Paul: In a Funk & Wagnalls doorstep with… So hermetically sealed. What is hermetically sealed? Everybody has heard that. Who is Hermie? Hermetic?

Simon: So he’s a guy that lives down the street.

Paul: Yeah. And he seals them for you.

Simon: That’s right. So we basically have a box. It’s essentially like a box that we connect the chip inside. There are connections that come out through that box, and then we put a lid on the box, and nothing can get in or out of that. So we try and fill the box up with nitrogen. Then we close the box, and basically, that is to protect the parts from moisture when they’re on the ground. There’s no weather in space. Space is a vacuum, so there’s no problem in space. But it’s to protect the parts. If they go down o Florida and sit on a launch pad for a couple of weeks in the humidity, it’s to stop moisture getting in and affect the electrical parameters of the part. So that’s the first, the hermetically-sealed parts, which we call the FBG series.

Then we have an even smaller version of that, which is called the FDA series, the Freebird Die Adapter series. So these are on a ceramic header, but there is no box. So this is a smaller version, almost a chip-scale product.

Paul: So how big is this physically? Quarter of an inch, eighth of an inch?

Simon: I can give it to you in mils.

Paul: Oh, okay. A scientist!

Simon: So the hermetically packaged part would be, a typical part would be 220 mils. So 0.22 inches by 0.15 inches. And that can conduct 30 amps. Yeah.

Paul: And not just like for a half a second.

Simon: No, no. Like, constantly.

Paul: Constantly. Wow. How do you get the conductors to get to that?

Simon: Big wires.

Paul: I guess. I mean, coming down to this little tiny thing.

Simon: No, I mean, it’s everything is designed correctly to match that. But that’s 0.22 by 0.15 of an inch would be a 30-amp device. And we can go smaller, and we can go slightly larger but that’s a 30-amp devices there. If we take that same chip onto the FDA series, which is the chip level part, then we are looking at… Now I only know this one in millimeters. So you’re going to have to do some… You don’t get a free ride here.

Paul: 25.4 millimeters per inch. Okay. Go ahead.

Simon: You’re going to have to do some math on this. So, it’s roughly 4 millimeters by 1.5 millimeters.

Paul: So a little bit smaller.

Simon: So what’s that? Yeah.

Paul: 4/25 of an inch would be 2/13… 1/6 of an inch.

Simon: It’s about a third of the actual area of the hermetically…

Paul: Wow. And the same 30 amps?

Simon: Mm-hmm. The same. The same chip. The same chip.

Paul: Interesting.

Simon: Not in a box. It’s set on a platform.

Paul: Okay. So really, the differences between your products are the packaging.

Simon: Yeah. We, we have a range of products that goes from 40 volts through 100 volts to 200 volts, and then we have, uh, a standalone product which is 300 volts—

Paul: I see. Oh, cool.

Simon: —in terms of capability. Then the third product range that we have is a module. So we actually design circuits with our chips, with, the chip scale parts. We create a functional building blocks for power supplies. And for the more technical listener, it’s a half-bridge circuit with a driver. So we’re actually the first company in the world to actually supply gallium nitride drivers to drive the gallium nitride switch, which is the 30-amp on the output.

Paul: Very cool. So and you’re building these. Are these all built in Haverhill?

Simon: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: Wow. Who would’ve thunk it. I mean, in Haverhill, Massachusetts we’re doing such cutting edge technology. That’s really great.

Simon: Yeah, it’s good. We’re involved with a lot of very important companies and institutions as well.

Paul: Excellent. Well, you’ll have all the contact information for Simon and his team in our show notes, his website. And if we could get some maybe pictures of some of the technology that would be interesting for the listeners to see. That would be really cool because I think it would be neat, if you’re interested in this, or if you know somebody who is interested in this kind of technology, just to look at that and see what it’s doing and what it replaces. So we can have that as well. But anyway, well, thank you very much for your time and we really appreciate you coming in and hope to talk to you next time.

Simon: No problem.

Paul: Alright.

Simon: Thank you very much.

More Episodes:

You’ve been listening to Part 3 of our interview with Simon Wainwright! If you missed Part 1, you can listen to it here and if you missed part 2, you can find it here!

Also published on Medium.