OTI Lumionics, a Toronto-based company that grew out of research at the University of Toronto, recently raised more than $75 million to expand its line of organic LED technology solutions — including displays that are not “notched” are interrupted that are common in today’s smartphones and laptop displays.
The startup’s latest innovation is known as CPM patterning and represents a new way of imprinting patterns on thin layers – typically on the order of nanometers or micrometers thick. This is important because some of the techniques that have been developed over the last several decades, including photolithographic patterning and laser ablation, cannot be used in certain manufacturing environments due to the materials used being sensitive to oxygen, moisture and other difficult factors to control.
“We have developed a process that allows you to pattern thin films rather than new materials – but instead of making a film and removing materials, you can grow a pattern from scratch at the atomic level. It’s a 100 percent materials science-based solution,” says OTI Founder and CEO Michael Hellander.
“This allows manufacturers to structure thin-film coatings in displays, for example, that they could not otherwise structure. That means they can start introducing new features and functions that weren’t possible before because they couldn’t be manufactured.”
A potential application for the technology is the integration of displays with various types of sensors and cameras. For example, the dark spots or “notches” we see on our smartphones, tablets and laptops are necessary to make room for a front camera.
“The idea is if you can pattern small, tiny holes in the display between every pixel, then these cameras and sensors can be integrated under the display,” says Helander. “You don’t have a black area that doesn’t work, so you get a more usable display without having to physically make the device bigger.
“The other benefit, which is particularly important with all these new video conferencing tools we’re all using, is that you can now hide the camera under a display. This helps with eye contact through a screen: you are not limited to placing the camera at the top of a device.”
Helander first saw the potential to commercialize his research while working on his PhD in Materials Science at the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Engineering. He was approached by well-known consumer electronics companies interested in the new materials and process technologies he was developing for the manufacture of organic electronics.
Encouraged by his supervisor, ProfessorZhen Hong Lu, Helander decided to license the technology and start a company in 2011. Since then, OTI’s technology focus has shifted from consumer lighting applications to advanced displays, including organic LEDs (OLED). The company now works with some of the largest consumer device brands in the world.
According to Helander, developing new materials is the “most elegant” way to solve manufacturing problems.
“Materials science and engineering is the foundation for all electronics and most other major industries,” says Helander, who received his PhD in 2012.
“Getting to the bottom of what makes it possible is all about new materials. New software like AI and machine learning are only made possible by better chips, better memory, and better hardware — and that better hardware is made possible by new advanced materials that allow for more components, like transistors, in a smaller, lower-power package.”
The new funding that OTI has raised will help the company scale and grow — supporting customers and bringing the technology to mass production.
“The types of problems we work on are opportunities where the goal is to improve the user experience of a device, but at a very fundamental level, using materials science and new materials to make that possible,” says helander
Helander credits his time in the Materials Science and Engineering department with preparing himself to tackle new problems and learning how to quickly familiarize himself with unfamiliar topics.
“The first day you take a course you don’t know anything about the material, but by the end you’ve figured out how to solve problems, and a lot of it ends up being self-directed,” says Helander.
“So when we have problems as a company, we now have the basis to consult resources, publications, textbooks and experts and find out how we can solve this problem in a very efficient way. This ability to be a lifelong learner is what I think sets engineering apart from many other disciplines.”