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Geoff Taylor has spent three decades building what he believes is a better microchip. Although silicon has powered an explosion in digital technology, Dr. Taylor is among the scientists who believe the chemical element is near the end of its shelf life. A native of Mississauga, Dr. Taylor has created a microchip at his laboratory at the University of Connecticut that is made of gallium arsenide (GaAs), a widely available chemical compound that the professor of electrical engineering and photonics says has shown a "10-to-1 advantage" in performance over silicon.
With his invention nearly complete, his hope now is to draw attention and dollars from companies whose wealth has derived from the production of silicon chips.
Dr. Taylor's invention is owned by POET Technologies Inc., which changed its name from Opel Technologies Inc. in June. Based in Toronto and publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange's Venture Composite Index, POET was a multimillion-dollar solar company until last year, when it sold off its solar assets to focus on developing and selling Dr. Taylor's chips. It has 15 employees, most of them at the Connecticut lab, and a market capitalization of $61-million.
Led by its co-founder, Dr. Taylor, POET is preparing to approach industry-leading chip manufacturers in Silicon Valley this summer, and its pitch will be centred on the demise of silicon.
"The only thing that would give them pause is the challenge of how do you mastermind it, and get your arms around it. It's a challenge to have it move into place," Dr. Taylor says of the technology, whose acronym stands for planar opto electronic technology, and which he sees as a successor to silicon microchips.
POET, the company, possesses more than 35 patents related to the technology, which makes it difficult for silicon behemoths Intel or IBM to duplicate. An aim for POET in the coming months is to find partners interested in purchasing or licensing Dr. Taylor's semiconductor chips. However, persuading large businesses – let alone entire industries – to alter course is a gargantuan undertaking.
What Dr. Taylor is banking on silicon becoming unable to deliver faster performance to a global market addicted to digital speed.
"The chip makers were much less likely to be interested in this kind of a solution until they came to terms with their own limitations, which in the silicon industry is now becoming quite obvious to anybody involved in the sector," says Dr. Taylor, 68, who has degrees from Queen's University and a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto. "There is a serious wall of problems for which there doesn't appear to be any solutions."
Still, POET hasn't had any takers even though the company has been around since 2000 and Dr. Taylor's work has been funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense. The company says defence manufacturer BAE Systems and others have validated the platform "and are developing solutions to be deployed into the market by early fall," but proving that the technology can be replicated in large volumes is one of the obstacles that POET believes it will be asked to prove.
"We haven't beaten on doors yet to try to coax them over to our side. We're just starting to do that now," Dr. Taylor says of microchip manufacturers in California. "We didn't want to do that until we had firm results that couldn't be disputed."
The company will also need to show that products made with POET chips cost less and perform better than their silicon counterparts. Dr. Taylor believes the impact on consumer products will be immense, saying that cellphones will require only one chip when right now they're made with several. That reduction in parts will lead to a dramatic increase in speed and a deep cut in price. "It costs $500 or $600 for an iPhone, but with this technology you'd be starting off at around one-third of that price," Dr. Taylor says.
The company believes its chips "could easily be a $10-billion opportunity" if one or more Silicon Valley companies begin to develop devices made with them.
The Challenge: How can POET sell Silicon Valley on the death of silicon?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Leon Raubenheimer, chief executive officer, Zed Financial Partners, Toronto
When you have a new product, you don't want to boil the whole ocean with it. You want to be strategic and develop key partnerships.
If I were POET, I would look to a company like BlackBerry Ltd. to validate the microchip. Perhaps BlackBerry's engineers can create a smartphone using the POET microchip side by side with a product using silicon chips. That would show the results and the performance attributes.
In exchange, POET could offer BlackBerry exclusivity for two years to produce smartphones with the POET chips. That way both companies win. Once an independent third-party technology company can prove POET's claims, then money will flood in from all of Silicon Valley.
Kal Suurkask, founder and managing director, Elevation PR, Victoria
POET Technologies should leverage Geoff Taylor's story and make him the face of this astounding and potentially game-changing technology.
Dr. Taylor has spent his entire career devoted to creating a device that he feels will drive the human race to a whole new level of performance. Whenever humanity has taken a dramatic leap forward in speed, the world has shifted and society has altered. Dr. Taylor should be front and centre of any such evolution.
Having him in the spotlight as interest in POET grows will only drive the value of the semiconductor chips and awareness of the invention in the technology sector – and beyond.
Anthony Giovinazzo, CEO, Cynapsus Therapeutics Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical company, Toronto
At Cynapsus, we had to prove our product to the pharmaceutical industry. Our product delivers an oral treatment for Parkinson's freezing episodes that is less painful and more effective than what is currently available. Once we discovered how to treat these episodes through a Listerine-type, sublingual strip – rather than injections – we then had to persuade the pharmaceutical industry that it worked and that it was scalable.
The most important focus for POET should be to come prepared with answers to all of the questions Silicon Valley will ask. Big changes often come about very slowly, and it can be gruelling. So they should also be prepared for a long wait.
Fortunately for us, we have had the endorsement of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has helped us both in terms of public awareness for Cynapsus and in providing a funding source for our drug development program. If there is an equivalent name in the chip-making sector, POET should consider reaching out to him or her for a testimonial on their device.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
POET, formerly Opel, should approach a company such as BlackBerry to provide proof that its technology works the way it says it does.
Make Geoff Taylor the face of the company
Linking the POET microchip invention to the man who built it will help attract media attention.
POET stakeholders should be ready with answers as its microchip goes under the microscope for close observation and testing by the technology industry.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.