Molecular memory not a dream as ZettaCore attracts real money

Jan. 20, 2004 — Your cell phone, like an increasing number of electronic devices, constantly drinks electricity to maintain its memory. If you could somehow get it to sip instead of gulp, you might get a week from the battery instead of a day.

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ZettaCore intends to use molecules that can store charge in next-generation memory chips. Thousands or more of the molecules would store electric charge — representing information — inside each cell of a memory array. The technology uses existing fabrication technologies and processes but accommodates smaller scale features.
That’s one potential benefit of technology under development at ZettaCore Inc. (News, Web), a Denver, Colo., developer of molecular memory. It might also sound like just one more rendition of the “nanotechnology will change the world” song — except for three salient facts:

  • ZettaCore has an experienced management team and a world class board of directors;
  • It has a working prototype that it is demonstrating to investors and potential collaborators;
  • And it was expected to announce today that Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — a venerated venture capital firm and an investor in the likes of America Online, Genentech and Netscape — has taken an equity stake in ZettaCore.

“I think ZettaCore is the tip of the molecular electronics wedge that will ultimately evolve into mainstream nanoelectronics, displacing highly scaled semiconductors,” Herb Goronkin, a former Motorola executive and a ZettaCore board member, said in an e-mail interview.

Apparently entertaining the same thoughts is Kleiner, which led the $17.5 million second funding round ZettaCore is announcing today. All of the company’s previous backers — including Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Radius Ventures, Oxford Biosciences, Access Ventures, Garrett Capital and Stanford University — also participated in the second round. (ZettaCore was founded in 1999. The funding announced today – which closed in December – brings the total amount raised to $23 million.)

“Not many people believe molecular memory is feasible in the short term,” said Vinod Khosla, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins who is also on the ZettaCore board. But, Khosla said, ZettaCore has proven various aspects of the technology. “They have made a lot of technical progress.”

ZettaCore uses molecules called porphyrins to store the 1s and 0s that comprise digital data. Adding or subtracting electrons changes the molecules’ charge, which is used to represent data.

The company says it offers the promise of faster memory that stores more information in less space. Such memory could also retain information for minutes — or even longer — without electricity, which could dramatically reduce the power required by portable devices.

The trio of founding scientists — chemists Werner Kuhr, David Bocian and Jonathan Lindsey — originally developed ZettaCore’s technology in academia. Kuhr left his position at the University of California, Riverside, to join ZettaCore as vice president of research.

Bocian, of UC-Riverside, and Lindsey, of North Carolina State University, published a paper in the Nov. 28 issue of Science in which they said tests showed how molecular memory is tough enough for current manufacturing techniques and reliable enough for real-world applications.

ZettaCore will use the infusion of funds for “commercialization of early product” over the next 12 to 36 months, according to Randy Levine, president and chief executive. The company’s prototype, he said, “looks and acts like a memory chip,” and was produced at “a commercially interesting scale,” though he declined to elaborate. Levine said ZettaCore, which employs 15 people, will also complete its ongoing move of commercial development activities from Raleigh, N.C., to Denver, Colo., and hire more staff.

Under ZettaCore’s business plan, the company will work initially with existing memory manufacturing methods, applying its molecules to wafers in what amounts to a molecular/CMOS hybrid approach. That, said Levine, could lead to memory chip features equaling that of current 90-nanometer microprocessors. (Currently, memory is manufactured with larger features.)

Further down the road, ZettaCore’s technology is a good candidate to mate with next-generation nanocircuit manufacturing techniques — such as nanoimprinting or self-assembling nanowires — for a pure nano memory device that could scale below the limitations of lithography.

While he’s a believer in the technology, Goronkin said overexcited expectations could be more of a hindrance than help. “Getting a new product such as a molecular memory to the point of satisfactory reproducibility and reliability takes time,” he said. “It just cannot be rushed.”

Goronkin, Motorola’s recently retired vice president and director of research, joined the board in July. Les Vadasz, former executive vice president of Intel Corp., joined in December. Intel announced last week that it was collaborating with Nanosys Inc. (Profile, News, Web) on nanotech-enabled memory. Kleiner’s Khosla, a co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, joined the board with the closing of the second round.

All three bring industry connections that could be critical to ZettaCore’s success. But don’t necessarily expect an early acquisition. “We’ve got to believe a company can be large and independent before we invest,” Khosla said.

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