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French deep tech spin-out Diamfab crystallizes the hopes of diamond semiconductors to support the green transition | TechCrunch

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As more funding goes into deep technology to solve tough global problems like climate change, PhD entrepreneurs from Europe’s top universities and labs are increasingly turning their research into businesses.

French company Diamfab, founded in 2019, is one example. Its co-founders, CEO Gauthier Chicot and CTO Khaled Driche, both doctors in nanoelectronics and recognized researchers in the field of semiconductor diamonds, have left the Institut Néel, laboratory of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) , with two licensed patents. their belt.

Since then, Chicot and Driche have filed more patents and brought on a third co-founder, Ivan Llaurado, as chief revenue officer and director of partnerships. They also raised a funding round of 8.7 million euros from Asterion Venturesthat of Bpifrance Seed of French Tech funds, Kreaxi, Best angle, Hello tomorrow and Grenoble Alpes Métropole.

This interest comes because the paradigm around semiconductor diamonds has changed over the past two years. “Diamonds are no longer a laboratory subject: they have become an industrial reality, with startups, industrialists interested in this field, and with the partners we have around us,” Chicot told TechCrunch.

Leave the laboratory

Silicon remains the most widely used semiconductor material in electronics because it is ubiquitous and cheap. But we hope that other options can one day surpass it, and not just in the laboratory. Tesla’s decision to use silicon carbide instead of silicon was an important step in that direction, and diamond could be next.

Because diamond is naturally more resistant to high temperatures and more energy efficient, Diamfab envisions a future in which a given component will need a much smaller surface area of ​​synthetic diamond than that of silicon carbide, making it competitive in terms of price.

The company’s long-term goal is to make more efficient semiconductors with a lower carbon footprint, while supporting what Chicot calls “the electrification of society,” starting with transportation.

Diamond-based electronics open the door to applications in power electronics: consider smaller batteries and more self-contained chargers, as less temperature control is needed, which is particularly relevant for the automotive sector and electric mobility. But diamond wafers could also be used for nuclear batteries, space technology and quantum computing.

The arguments in favor of diamond as a better alternative to silicon do not come out of nowhere; Diamfab draws on 30 years of R&D from the Néel Institute in the field of the development of synthetic diamonds. Its founders wanted to take this technology out of the laboratory. “We wanted to be useful pioneers,” Chicot said.

Be reward the i-Lab Grand Jury Prize in 2019 was a turning point for the firm. Co-hosted by French institutions, it brought grants and a sense of validation that helped the team inside and out.

With this label, “the banks trust you even if you do not achieve any turnover”, estimates Chicot. “It was a real plus at the beginning to get this award. And it’s partly because we have cutting-edge technology, and partly because this technology is crucial for the world.

The promises of the diamond

French public investment bank Bpifrance, one of the organizers of the i-Lab awards, is doubling its bet on Diamfab with financing from the French Tech Seed fund, which Bpifrance manages on behalf of the French state as part of the plan France 2030.

When silicon becomes a commodity, Diamfab’s high value-added diamond wafers could be manufactured in Europe and sold at a higher price, justified by their greater efficiency, which is also part of the green transition. Decarbonization is a key objective of France 2030and diamonds might help.

Their carbon footprint would be lighter due to the smaller surface area required by diamond compared to silicon carbide, but also because Diamfab synthesizes its diamonds from methane. In the future, this source could be biomethane, giving a commercial outlet to this recycling by-product.

Diodes on edge Diamfab

Image credits: Diamfab

However, most of these measures are still to come. Diamfab is still decades away from its goals, but says it will take five years for its technology to be able to support mass production of diamond wafers that meet industry requirements. That means taking its know-how in growing and doping diamond layers on one-inch wafers, and applying it to the four-inch wafers that silicon carbide is already working on. Even with enough funding to support a small pilot production line, it will take a few years.

This five-year horizon made Diamfab a must for certain VCs; While these countries may welcome the idea of ​​reindustrializing Europe through cutting-edge innovation, their liquidity cycles make this type of investment more difficult. But Chicot finally managed to raise the 8.7 million euros which will allow the startup to go through its pre-industrialization phase.

Grenoble, a deep tech hub

The group of investors that rallied behind Diamfab is “balanced,” Chicot said, including public players, the long-term fund Asterion Labs and supporters from Diamfab’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and its city of Grenoble. .

Although there is justified hype around AI in Paris, Grenoble is perhaps the closest to a French Silicon Valley. Largely thanks to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Louis Néelthe alpine town focus on electronics turned it into a deep technology hub this is now also part of the discussions on green technologies and sovereign technologies.

Among the Grenoble startups that come to mind are Verkor, which obtained more than 2 billion euros for its gigafactory in the north of France, and Renaissance Fusion, which raised $16.4 million last year to build nuclear fusion technology in Europe. But Diamfab could benefit more from its partnerships with larger players with local ties, including CEA, Schneider Electric, Soitec and STMicroelectronics.

There is no doubt that more semiconductors will come out of the French Alps. While the EU and the United States have adopted Chip acts to reduce their dependence on Asia, France is preparing to provide 2.9 billion euros in aid for the next joint factory of STMicroelectronics and GlobalFoundries, and recently of Soitec opened a fourth factory close. Diamfab now hopes to also play a role and unlock the full potential of diamond in semiconductors.

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