Like a lot of engineers, Chris Dries’s favorite toys as a child were Erector Sets and Tonka toys. These later gave way to televisions and radios, which he liked to disassemble.
“I was curious to know how things worked,” he says.
That curiosity led him on an odyssey that brought him last fall to United Silicon Carbide Inc., of which he is now president. Dries and a few other investors acquired USCI last fall because of its progress in researching and developing potential applications for silicon carbide (SiC) — in everything from all-electric vehicles to oil exploration and from satellites to nuclear plants.
“We took over the company as an investment and are now managing it,” he says. The new owners promptly relocated USCI from New Brunswick to a much larger facility at 7 Deer Park Drive in Monmouth Junction, and increased the staff from five to eleven.
“It will take time for the silicon carbide business to mature,” Dries says. “We are still largely at the pilot production stage but are nearly ready to take the leap to broad commercial deployment. We are developing system level improvements through silicon carbide that promote greater efficiencies in clean energy applications. This is the future. There is huge potential here.”
USCI is selling some SiC products but the departments of Defense and Energy, along with NASA, provide research grants that account for most of the company’s revenues. The government funding will decrease as revenues grow, Dries notes.
SiC research has developed to the point that it is beginning to replace silicon, which is used in numerous industrial applications. Unlike silicon — the second most common element found on the earth’s crust — SiC is an extremely rare compound that must be mass produced.
“Silicon carbide offers many benefits over silicon,” Dries says. “Power electronics are dominated by silicon, which is the principal component of most semiconductor devices.” SiC withstands heat and pressure better than silicon and is immune to the effects of radiation. It thus presents enormous opportunities for use in power electrical applications and harsh environments.
“Your home computer uses silicon to convert the AC direct current in the outlet to DC current but with some loss of efficiency,” Dries explains. “Silicon carbide can increase the electrical efficiency from 90 to 99 percent during this conversion, which means you’d use less electricity.”
SiC also offers potential, for example, in all-electric cars, such as the Tesla Roadster. “Silicon carbide can improve the size and weight of the car battery, which now extends the width of the car, by a factor of 10,” Dries says. “In other words, silicon carbide could reduce the size of a car battery from 10 cubic feet to one cubic foot. You’d end up with a smaller battery and a lighter car that can drive much farther.”
Because SiC can withstand much higher temperatures than silicon, it can be used in devices used for oil exploration. And, unaffected by radiation, SiC devices can be used in nuclear power plants and in satellites
Looking back, Dries could trace his interest in electrical engineering to the day he permanently changed the color in the corner of the family television set to purple when he held a magnet to it. He was ever so pleased with himself — and curious about how the change occurred. “I grew up in Maryland and was fortunate to have parents who recognized I was good at math and science, and was also very curious,” he says. “They encouraged me.”
His mother stayed at home while he and his sister grew up and later became an interior designer. But Dries’s father offered an inspiration.
“My dad was always a hard worker,” he says. “He grew up on a 300-acre farm in Maryland. After high school, rather than go to college, he joined the Marines and served in Vietnam.”
In the service, Dries’s father developed some engineering expertise, which enabled him to land an engineering job at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., despite lacking a college degree. “He worked on infrared countermeasures — devices that fool enemy missiles — and worked his way up to section head,” Dries says. “He retired from the lab and now runs his own engineering firm.”
Dries also grew up on the farm, which he credits with helping to pay a good chunk of his and his sister’s college tuition. He left home to study electrical engineering at Duke University, where he anticipated a “pretty generic career path” in management consulting after graduating in 1994.
“Instead, almost on a whim, I applied for the Ph.D. program at Princeton University,” Dries says. He earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1996 and 1999, respectively.
While working on his doctoral thesis, Dries made some important contacts at Sensors Unlimited Inc. (notably Greg Olsen, whose company it was at the time), which hired him as a researcher upon graduation. He would go on to manage all of the company’s research and new product development. Fortune soon smiled broadly on Dries and several of his new colleagues. Finisar Corp. of Sunnyvale, California, bought Sensors Unlimited for $600 million in 2000 — just on the cusp of the dot-com collapse.
In 2004 Finisar finally threw in the towel and sold the company for just $6 million to a group of Sensors Unlimited managers, Dries included. They made a killing two years later when they sold Sensors Unlimited for $60 million to Goodrich Corp.
Dries and several colleagues decided to invest their profits. They founded DOLCE Technologies, which provides capital and advisory services to early stage technology businesses. DOLCE, Italian for sweet, is an anagram based on the five founding partners’ last names. Through one investment they made, Dries says, “We learned of the opportunity offered in replacing silicon with silicon carbide in high power applications.”
That discovery led the DOLCE investors to Jian Zhao, a professor at Rutgers University. Zhao had made great strides in researching SiC at a company he helped establish in 1998, United Silicon Carbide. The DOLCE partnership purchased the company last fall.
Dries continues to develop his network with his alma maters. He serves on the Princeton Graduate School Leadership Council, the Princeton Electrical Engineering Department Advisory Board, and the Duke University Engineering School Board of Visitors.
Dries also established United Silicon Carbide as a member of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM). The organization was founded to address long-term global and societal challenges through deeper understanding and invention in the world of materials and their applications.
“My involvement with Princeton and Duke fosters collaboration with students,” he says. USCI hired for the summer, for example, a graduate student from Rutgers and another from Stanford University. And the schools benefit by their relationship with Dries by providing classes that include the latest advances in SiC research and development.
“My fellow partners and I all enjoy building a business,” he says. “You want to build a business around what you know how to do — and what we know is semiconductors. Things haven’t always worked about as anticipated but we are having a good time along the way.”
#b#United Silicon Carbide#/b#, 7 Deer Park Drive, Princeton Corporate Plaza, Suite E, Monmouth Junction 08852-; 732-565-9500; fax, 732-565-9502. Chris Dries, president and CEO. www.unitedsic.com.