Interview with Barry Hoberman, Crocus' chief marketing officer

Crocus is a startup company that develops MRAM technology - and recently they have announced several exciting advances in both their technology and their financing and production plans. We had the good chance to interview Barry Hoberman, Crocus' chief marketing officer.

Q: Barry, thanks for agreeing to answer our questions... The big story today is still RUSNANO's $125 million investment - announced in May 2011. Any updates on this deal? Have the construction begun on the Russian plant?

A: The site selection for our Russian plant (Crocus Nano Electronics) has been completed. The site contains an existing shell, which will be modified to support the clean room. Crocus expects to process wafers at this facility in 2013.

Q: You seem to be focused on the new MLU technology. Any updates on this new development?

A: Crocus' MLU, first announced in June 2011, is based on a revolutionary self-referencing magnetics architecture. MLU is a scalable evolution of Crocus' Thermally Assisted Switchingâ„¢ (TAS) technology, and enables practical implementation of advanced magnetic logic and memory capabilities, a first for the industry.

The development of MLU technology is progressing as planned and we expect to demonstrate our first MLU based product in 2H of 2012.

Q: Do you also develop "regular" MRAM or is it just MLU now?

A: We developed our first generation TAS MRAM (non-MLU based) products in the TowerJazz 130nm process, which are currently in the test and characterization phase. Crocus is preparing to enter the market with these products in 2012.

Q: There are several players in the STT-MRAM market today: Crocus, Samsung, Hynix/Toshiba, Everspin. Can you compare your technology to the technologies being developed by other companies?

A: Crocus is the only company in the market that is developing MLU based magnetic semiconductors. Crocus' MLU technology is not based on STT technology. Samsung, Hynix, Toshiba have been public about their work on STT-based MRAMs, although we are not aware of any products available in the market as yet from these suppliers. Everspin’s current MRAM products are based on a non-STT toggle cell design at 180/130nm and they have announced plans for STT based products.

The table below shows our comparison of Crocus’ MLU technology versus other MRAM technologies.

  Crocus MLU Technology   Other MRAM Technologies
High Density – NAND, MLC Yes No
Ease of SOC Integration Yes No
Secure Memory and Hardware Search  Yes No
High Temperature Operation (200 C)  Yes No
Simplified Manufacturing Yes No
High Yield Architecture Yes No

Q: Back in August Crocus acquired NXP's IP. Can you tell us why was this important to you?

A: The NXP patents that Crocus acquired provide fundamental MRAM intellectual property rights that are relevant in the industry that Crocus serves. Building a leading intellectual property portfolio position is crucial to building a strong business in competitive technology markets.

Q: You recently signed a licensing deal with IBM. You will also co-develop MLU technology. Any updates on this?

A: Crocus and IBM are jointly developing semiconductor technology that combines Crocus's TAS MLU technology with IBM's MRAM technology and processing capabilities. The joint development, which includes development of a new process, is progressing as planned. We plan to demonstrate products based on this new process in 2012.

Q: A few weeks ago you announced a deal with SMIC to co-develop MLU chips for the automotive industry. Why do you target automobiles? what advantages will MLU have there? Where can we expect chips based on this collaboration to appear on the market?

A: The automotive electronics market is one of the fastest growing semiconductor market segments as the need for comfort, safety and reduced fuel consumption increases. These functions require local intelligence and control, which can be optimized through the use of microcontrollers and other components. Designers are increasingly seeking to place these controls in or near high temperature environments such as gear boxes, turbochargers and exhaust systems. MLU technology is an ideal fit for these commercial high temperature environments. The automotive electronics market represents a large and growing opportunity for Crocus.

Q: Another interesting deal was signed with Morpho to develop MLU-based smartcards. Again, any more details on that? when can we expect these smartcard controllers to appear?

A: Morpho, is one of the world's leading suppliers of identification, detection and e-document solutions and so we are quite excited that they decided to partner with Crocus for their next generation smartcard design. The smart card semiconductor market is a multi-billion dollar market and represents a major opportunity for Crocus. Under the terms of the agreement, Crocus will develop an MLU-based secure microcontroller which Morpho will integrate into its smart card products. Crocus' MLU technology will provide significant advantages for Morpho's smart cards with respect to security, speed, reliability and cost. As for the availability of MLU-based smartcard controllers, we cannot speak on behalf of Morpho.

Q: When we talked with Bertrand F. Cambou back in 2010, your plans were to release a 1-Mbit TAS-MRAM product in mid 2011, in partnership with TowerJazz. These products weren't released yet. Any updates?

A: We are still planning to introduce the 1-Mbit TAS MRAM product in 2012. Crocus has had and continues to have a very successful partnership with TowerJazz. The combined engineering teams of Crocus and Tower are engaged in bringing our 130nm technology to production. We anticipate this 130nm collaboration to lead to the market introduction of products in 2012.

Q: A few years ago there was a lot of hype around MRAM... but the technology seemed to stagger for a while. Even today, there's just one company (Everspin) that actually produces MRAM chips. What are your thoughts regarding the MRAM industry today?

A: The MRAM market is small today and as you point out, there is only one supplier. However the market has been growing and with the emergence of Crocus’ MLU technology, which combines both memory and logic functionality, we see many more applications for this new technology, including use of MLU in the security, networking and automotive market segments.

Q: How does your solutions compare to Everspin current MRAM and future STT-RAM technology?

A: As described earlier, Crocus is the only company in the world that is developing MLU based magnetic semiconductors. MLU uniquely enables numerous new techniques and improvements in the functionality and manufacturing of magnetic integrated circuits. More specifically, MLU can:

  1. Help facilitate integration of magnetic technologies into standard (CMOS) chips,
  2. Enable high density memory techniques such as MLC (multi-level cell) and NAND (not-AND),
  3. Simplify manufacturing and enhance yields of magnetic semiconductors
  4. Implement robust and highly cost effective hardware based search engines and secure memory
  5. Offer higher operating temperature non-volatile memories than previously available
  6. Solve implementation problems that challenge other new magnetic technologies

Q: Two years ago there was a big management change at Crocus. Can you explain to us why this happened?

A: Companies go through different stages as they grow. Changes at Crocus reflect the transition from the early start-up and technology development phase to the go-to-market phase.

Q: Where do you see the Memory market and MRAM in particular in say 3-5 years? What role will Crocus take?

A: Today, we see applications of Crocus’ MRAM products in many areas including storage, mobile communications and commerce, networking, cloud computing, automotive and industrial control markets.

In the long term, as we continue to develop our MLU technology and significantly bring down the cost per bit, we will increasingly encroach on applications served by other memory types. We anticipate that our technology will be used as standalone memory as well as in embedded applications.

Q: Do you see MRAM (or STT-RAM) becoming a 'universal memory' like was envisioned a few years ago? Will it ever be scaled to large densities that will compete with flash memory?

A: MRAM still has a unique set of characteristics defined by its high speed, high endurance and non-volatility. Crocus’ MLU extends this capability with higher density and increased functionality. When manufactured using equivalent lithographies, MLU-based chips will be highly competitive with other memory types.

Thanks again Barry, and good luck to both you and Crocus!

Posted: Jan 08,2012 by Ron Mertens