German OLED firm aims to give Japan run for money

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GERMANY, June 24, 2004 – If Dresden-based Novaled has its way, many of the displays of the future — highly efficient, extremely thin and even flexible — will have a “Made in Germany” label somewhere on them.

The company was spun off in 2001 from the Technical University of Dresden and Fraunhofer Institute of Photonic Microsystems (IPMS) to licence its OLED technology to display and lighting manufacturing.

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Novaled is now entering the final stages of getting its second-generation organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology ready for the market. By the middle of 2005, it plans on having its OLED display screens in PDAs or handhelds on store shelves.

The company eventually wants to set up a production site in Dresden for the OLED display market that promises to take-off in a big way over the next few years.

OLED technology, first developed by Eastman Kodak in the early 1980s, has many advantages over traditional liquid crystal displays (LCD) that many observers say could make them the technology of choice in a few years.

OLED displays are much clearer, brighter and have a higher contrast than traditional LCD screens, which give them a wider viewing angle. Since they do not need a backlight to function like LCDs do, but create their own light, they operate at a very low voltage. That makes them easier on batteries and cheaper to manufacture.

Uses for such screens, which can be made very small or potentially very large, range from mobile phone and stereo displays, which already exist, to advertising displays on everything from cereal boxes or billboards to lighting.

In the past, Canon has mentioned the potential for 500-inch polymer OLED display screens, printed very quickly using ink-jet technology on flexible surfaces. The talk has led to excited speculation about roll-up portable computer screens coming soon.

OLEDs are a series of carbon-based thin films sandwiched between two charged electrodes, one a metallic cathode and the other a transparent substance, usually glass. When voltage is applied to an OLED, the injected positive and negative charges recombine and produce light.

Novaled said it has set itself apart from the competition by developing OLED displays that use only half of the energy of those currently on the market. Through “doping” techniques, researchers apply certain molecules to transport materials, thereby increasing conductivity and decreasing operating voltage.

The around 20 Novaled scientists working on the project have a goal of further reducing operating voltage further, down to a fifth of current levels needed.

The company got a major boost last year when it secured 5.75 million euros ($7 million) in financing from international investors led by venture capital firms TechnoStart and TechFund Capital Europe. Other investors included Dresden Fonds and Thomson, the French media services and equipment group.

As soon as the PDA display is ready for market, Jan Blockwitz-Nimoth, Novaled’s technical director, said he wants to start generating the “first real profits” through the sale of licences.

After that, Blockwitz-Nimoth said the company is interested in creating a joint venture with a strong partner and has its eyes set on creating a production facility, likely in Dresden where it could take advantage of the region’s high-tech dynamic.

The market for OLED displays is growing rapidly. According to a study by the research firm iSuppli, the global market last year was around $250 million and is expected to grow to more than $3.1 billion in 2009 and $4 billion in 2010.  

Up to now, the Japanese have dominated that market, with players like Pioneer in Japan, Korea’s Samsung and RiT Display in Taiwan leading the pack. Samsung also is using OLED displays is some of its products.

This May in Tokyo, Seiko Epson presented a prototype of a big-screen color television using OLED technology, heating up the race considerably.

But the Germans are still in the running, besides Novaled, large German firms like Schott Glas and lighting industry giant Osram are conducting research.

Other high-tech companies and institutes here are hoping to secure the country’s place in the future OLED landscape by pooling their resources.

In 2003, several firms, including Novaled, the Fraunhofer IPMS institute, Deutsche Thomson Brandt, Applied Films and others formed a research association called OLEDFAB. Its goal is to set up a pilot production system of OLED displays in eastern Germany.

The German government believes the OLED outlook is good and provided the association with start-up funds of $3.9 million.

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