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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the March 5, 2003
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
UDC’s Bright New Twists in Flat Panel Display
It’s been a heady five years for Universal Display
Corporation. In those five years UDC — a leader in organic light
emitting device (OLED) display technology — traded a four-room
walk-up on Nassau Street for a 21,000 square foot state-of-the-art
development and pilot-production facility in the Princeton Crossroads
Corporate Center on Phillips Boulevard.
The company (www.universaldisplay.com) has garnered some heavyweight
media attention, with its future products being talked up in recent
issues of Time, Newsweek, PC Wired, and Forbes, as well as getting
video play on CBS News and MSNBC.
And the company — launched with the help of Princeton University
researchers, in what was the university’s first foray into taking
equity for tech transfer — now finds itself with some big-muscle
partners, signing joint development and commercialization agreements
with the likes of DuPont Display, Sony Corporation, Motorola Inc.,
Samsung SDI, and Pittsburgh’s PPG Industries.
"Five years ago, we were the crazy guys," says Steven V.
51, UDC’s president, one of the company’s original staff of four.
He now heads up close to 40 staffers. "People knew we worked with
a university team and raised a little money, but we used to have to
explain to them what the flat panel display industry was."
With that industry now valued at $30 billion — and expected to
hit close to $60 billion in 2006 — Abramson doesn’t have to
so much anymore about UDC’s potential slice of the booming electronic
display market. Instead, he and the rest of the UDC team are
a breakthrough technology from university "clean" rooms to
— very soon, they hope — your TV screen, your computer
and display screens on that cell phone you’re carrying around in your
UDC’s recent flurry of press focused on a prospective product the
company dubs the "Universal Communication Device." Imagine
a pen or a wand, from which you can roll out a thin sheet of plastic.
The pen would function as a cell phone, a PDA, a video screen, a
monitor, and a downloadable road map.
"The concept is that the screen will at least be large enough
to download information off the Web," says Janice Mahon, 46, UDC’s
vice president of technology commercialization since 1997. "You
could have a video conference with your boss or use it to watch a
The device has captured the imagination of not only technology
but of the military as well. Last year UDC got funding from the U.S.
Army Research Laboratory to develop the device as a flexible road
map — complete with a global positioning system and night vision
— in its Land Warrior program. The goal is to have a working
by 2006, with high volume use by 2010.
"But we obviously have a number of milestones to that end and
hope to demonstrate advances between now and that ultimate
Mahon says. Earlier generations of the device would probably not have
a full suite of applications — and could come in products that
don’t yet exist.
"Once we have displays on flexible substrates like plastic, we’ll
have conformable displays," says Julie Brown, UDC’s 41-year old
chief technical officer, who oversees the 25-member technical team.
Imagine a display running around your coffee mug or across the back
of your car headrest. And in-flex use displays could come in many
other forms besides pens. "The one I like best would let me wrap
my cell phone around my wrist," Brown says. "Once we have
the multiple-flex display technology, the applications are probably
The Universal Communication Device is just one of several ongoing
programs UDC has with the military. This year the Army extended its
commitment to help develop plastic displays that can be mounted on
military helmets, integrating a miniature, high-resolution display
into — or laminating it onto — the helmet face shield, to
give soldiers direct visual access to critical information.
The Army has also given UDC a grant to work on building OLED displays
on metal foil. "Plastic is a wonderful substrate to build displays
on, but it has some limitations that we’re addressing," says
The major advantage of metal foil over plastic? Its ability to
much higher temperatures during processing, when you have to build
a thin film transistor array on base material before OLEDs can be
added. "Foil may enable us to get a flexible OLED display into
the marketplace sooner."
The marvelously versatile OLED technology that UDC wants to apply
to plastic, metal, fabric, and glass sprang from a marriage of organic
chemistry and electrical engineering. The research for the technology
is being done by teams at Princeton’s Photonics and Optoelectronic
Materials (POEM) center, led by Stephen Forrest, PhD, chair of
electrical engineering department, and at the University of Southern
The "O" in OLED stands for "organic" and refers to
synthetic, non-biological, carbon-containing compounds. Those
molecules "are highly colored, visible organic dyes," says
Forrest, a 1972 graduate of the University of California who got his
PhD in physics from the University of Michigan. He worked seven years
at Bell Labs and six years at USC before coming to Princeton in 1992.
(His USC counterpart, Mark Thompson, PhD, used to be on the Princeton
chemistry department faculty.)
While the important feature of, say, clothing dyes is their ability
to be absorbed, the significant characteristic of OLED dyes is their
ability to give off light. The OLED — the actual device —
is a solid-state semiconductor with organic dyes that emit light when
stimulated by an electric current. (By contrast, liquid crystal
or LCDs — a technology that is a tough OLED competitor — only
reflects light from a back-lit source.)
Researchers have been investigating organic semiconductors for the
last 50 years, with research into the dyes’ efficient light
first being done by Kodak in the mid-1980s. "Our particular
has been to make very functional layered devices using thin-film
Forrest explains, "and to get color out of them."
Forrest’s and Thompson’s OLED research attracted the attention of
Philadelphia entrepreneur Sherwin Seligsohn, who had already made
a fortune from licensing cellular technology. He entered into his
first strategic partnership with Princeton and USC in 1994 — one
that is still going strong.
"The fact that we’re working with probably the world’s premier
OLED research and development team has been one of our greatest
stories," says Abramson, who has a B.A. in international relations
from Bucknell, an M.A. in international relations and the philosophy
of science from Ohio State, and a law degree from Temple. Working
with Seligsohn first as a patent lawyer, Abramson became UDC president
UDC and its two university partners started with two patents, both
granted around the beginning of 1998, that allowed for transparent
and color OLED displays. (See "An OLED Family Primer," below).
Those first two patents have very fruitfully multiplied, with
UDC now having 400 issued or pending patents worldwide.
And UDC continues to forge new OLED development. With the help of
a crucial new corporate partnership, the company intends to merge
two disparate camps of OLED research.
Half of the OLED community (including UDC) has focused
on developing technology using small molecule OLEDs that start as
crystals, Mahon explains. The other half — which includes DuPont
Display, a division of DuPont that has been doing OLED research for
about seven years — has instead used a class of polymer OLED
that start as a liquid.
Last December UDC and DuPont announced joint development and cross
licensing agreements to bring the two research branches together,
making it possible to eventually have liquid processible OLED
That means that color pixilated displays in the future could be built
using equipment comparable to ink jet printers.
The Army and DuPont are only two of UDC’s strategic partners. Samsung
wants to use UDC’s OLED technology in cell phone displays, while Sony
has even more ambitious plans for UDC’s technology: OLED television
screens and desktop monitors.
In 2000, UDC began a partnership with Germany’s Aixtron AG, licensing
intellectual property to Aixtron to build manufacturing equipment
— through a process called "organic vapor phase
— that will enable high volume flat panel display production.
In 2002 Aixtron installed the first pilot OVPD system at UDC’s plant
(designed by New Jersey architects Arcari & Iovino and built by
Sweetwater Construction). UDC will use Aixtron’s equipment to optimize
the manufacturing process.
And UDC enjoys "a fabulous partnership" with Pittsburgh’s
PPG Industries, Mahon says. PPG is now helping accelerate the
of phosphorescent organic materials UDC wants to use in its different
"They will also produce commercial quantities of those materials
for us, to in turn provide to our manufacturing partners," says
Video wands, cell phone bracelets, plastic television screens you
can roll up and down on your wall like a window blind — while
the future is undeniably bright for OLED technology, very few OLED
products are now on the market. Back in 1999, Mahon says, Pioneer
Electronics — the Tokyo-based manufacturing giant of digital audio
and video products — introduced an OLED screen display in an
audio component as well as a Motorola cell phone.
And "there are now a handful of other companies who are just
to get displays into the pipeline," Mahon says. One of the first
examples of OLED displays to hit the market will be the peekaboo
now cropping up on the outside of clamshell-configured cell phones,
she adds. "We are now sitting on the cusp where our products are
just beginning to hit the marketplace."
One big hurdle in OLEDs’ marketability is operating lifetime —
a hurdle that, according to chief technical officer Brown is now being
cleared, thanks to the company’s university researchers and its own
technical team. Princeton’s phosphorescent OLEDs, discovered in 1999,
had an operating lifetime of 10 hours — well below the 5,000 or
10,000 hours needed for commercial applications. Several advances
now allow OLEDs to achieve operating lifetimes of more than 10,000
hours at display level brightness.
"We’ve improved the stability of the organic molecules, and we
improved the architecture of the device," says Brown, who got
a PhD in 1991 from University of Southern California. (She was one
of Forrest’s first graduate students, and came to UDC in 1998 from
a job with Hughes Laboratories in Malibu, California.) "We also,
in PPG, have a chemical company that is moving these molecules to
a commercial reality, without impurities that can lead to short
It’s partly that boost in operating lifetime — along with
more lightweight, flexible, and inexpensive displays — that will
allow OLEDs to take on competing technologies, like liquid crystal
"We have to have better performance than incumbent technologies
today," Brown says. "OLED displays need to operate more hours
than LCDs and provide full color displays with low power." At
the same time, LCD and plasma technology for flatscreen televisions
have not stood still, continuing to raise the bar for OLED technology.
But OLED development is accelerating, with market analysts now
that OLEDs will be used in televisions as early as 2004.
That’s great news for those of us who can’t afford the current
plasma TV models: Unlike OLEDs, plasma displays need pricey high
drivers. In addition to having better brightness, Mahon says that
OLED flatscreens should be cheaper.
While UDC has been racking up press and partners, they’ve also
another crowd: competitors. Five years ago, fewer than a dozen
were doing serious work with OLEDs, says Mahon. Now "there are
probably 120 different entities worldwide participating in the OLED
food chain, from research to development to manufacturing," she
Another big change is the number of companies committing to putting
manufacturing capacity in place. "Five years ago, only Pioneer
and maybe TDK had begun to put capacity in place," says Mahon.
Now well over a dozen companies are gearing up to bring OLED
online. Many of the companies are based in Japan and Korea, while
Taiwan will also play a big role.
But "there is an accelerating movement among American companies,
such as Kodak and DuPont, to get involved in the display
says Abramson. That has been aided by the U.S. Display Consortium,
a trade group of more than 100 companies, including UDC, that are
boosting the American presence in the flat panel display industry.
Technological development has been challenged by the stalled economy,
although Abramson says the company has continued to be successful
raising money (it trades as PANL on NASDAQ) and even retired $15
in debt last year. Still, while revenues are going up, the company
is looking to the future to be profitable.
"We’re now partnering with some of the largest and best-known
companies in the world," says Abramson. "It’s a heady feeling
— but a sobering one as well. We realize how much farther we have
to go to truly be a success in the commercial world."
Phillips Boulevard, Ewing 08618. Steven Abramson, president.
fax, 609-671-0995. Www.universaldisplay.com
The Universal Display Corporation (UDC) has gathered
an impressive group of strategic partners to take its technology to
But its relationship with its initial partner — Princeton
— is still going strong. In 1997, Princeton (along with the
of Southern California, which has another OLED research team) and
UDC signed a five-year agreement that was renewed last year. (The
university’s first agreement with UDC’s founder was in 1994.)
The 1997 agreement was the university’s first foray into taking equity
for tech transfer — although, according to Joe Montemarano,
for industrial liaison for Princeton’s Photonics and Optoelectronic
Materials (POEM) center where the OLED research is housed, it was
certainly not the last. The university is now, he says, submitting
a proposal to the National Science Foundation to establish a nano
imprint manufacturing center here in Princeton that would seek to
involve many different companies and labs.
UDC — as well as Sensors Unlimited, a company on Route One in
Princeton that was also founded with POEM research — were
examples" of start-ups that went right, Montemarano says. Both
had the distinction of not needing venture funds to be launched —
exceptions that highlight funding problems for other start-ups in
"There needs to be a more integrated and robust effort at seed
funding in New Jersey," says Montemarano. One company that
research helped launch is already leaving the state, he pointed out,
because they can’t get more seed investment.
"They have to follow the money," he says, adding that New
Jersey could learn some important lessons from other parts of the
country that have more experience with early stage funding.
The defection is "a wake-up call," spurring the university
and other technology players in the state to get information on
technologies out to venture firms. "At that point, we can expect
them to act sooner rather than later," he says. Problems finding
venture funds are also motivating Princeton to seek to collaborate
with other research entities like Rutgers.
"We had hoped the Commission on Science and Technology might be
an architect of that," Montemarano says, referring to the
proposal to stop all funds to the commission, "but at this point,
we don’t foresee that."
POEM researchers continue to be prolific, representing perhaps as
much as one half of all the intellectual property generated
But the slipping economy means that those in tech transfer better
be adaptable. "Fortunately, we’ve been able to diversify and our
pursuit of life science and biotech applications has been quite
he says. "We’re able to take telecom technologies and put them
into use for medical imaging, DNA sequencing, and a whole variety
That adaptability has given POEM research better play in what
calls "shorthaul markets." But "everyone," he adds,
"is waiting for telecom to come back."
— Phyllis Maguire
Materials, E-Quad, Suite J303, Princeton 08544. James C. Sturm,
director. 609-258-4454; fax, 609-258-1954.
OLEDs are organic light-emitting diodes, solid-state
semiconductor devices with dye compounds that contain carbon. The
dyes give off light when stimulated by electric current.
Research teams at Princeton University and at the University of
California have taken the basic OLED technology and created several
new generations for Ewing’s Universal Display Corporation (UDC). Those
different technology platforms include:
Synthetic molecules are layered in a microscopically-thin film —
about 1/10,000 of the thickness of a human hair — with transparent
electrodes. A breakthrough transparent technology, TOLED
changed the display landscape," says Janice Mahon, UDC’s vice
president of technology commercialization. With transparent
you can turn a glass wall, a car windshield, or even the lenses of
your sunglasses into a display.
refers to the vertically stacked architecture of colored pixels for
full color OLEDs. Like TOLED, Mahon points out, SOLED is a
In conventional displays powered by the cathode ray tubes used in
televisions, for example, different colored pixels are arranged side
by side. "It’s your eye that resolves the colors from the red,
green, and blue pixels," Mahon says. "But our technology
colors on top of each other within each pixel." You get the same
amount of visual information in one-third of the area, she says —
and with three times the resolution.
on flexible plastic substrates, unlike liquid crystal displays (LCDs,
the ruling technology in desktop and laptop computer screens) where
crystals flow between two pieces of glass.
With the lighter weight technology, "someday FOLEDs will be
to any surface you want," says Mahon. In a few years, she
you will be rolling up the TV screen on your wall like a blind,
your portable computer monitor to stash in a briefcase or bookbag,
and wearing T-shirts and blue jeans with FOLED logos.
is getting a lot of play. With four times the power efficiency of
other OLED platforms, PHOLED displays allow batteries in portable
devices to last much longer.
"PHOLEDs are a cornerstone for OLED development to take on
technologies like liquid crystal displays (LCDs)," says UDC’s
chief technical officer Julie Brown. That’s because phosphorescent
OLEDs last longer on the same battery as LCDs, providing full color
displays with low power.
Phosphorescent OLEDs are behind UDC’s joint development with Samsung
SUI to develop phosphorescent displays for cell phones. And the U.S.
Army has initiated several small business innovation research programs
with UDC to incorporate PHOLED technology in different military
such as helmet-mounted display systems.
which is being developed through a partnership between UDC and DuPont
Displays, a division of DuPont — will combine two different OLED
technologies: solid crystal OLEDs with polymer or liquid OLED
The goal is to create a process whereby OLED displays can be
(for much less money than when they’re layered in a solid state) via
an ink-jet printing technique.
matrix — refers to different formats for building displays. An
active matrix display, Mahon explains, allows individual pixels to
be "turned on" or activated independently of each other to
produce much better degrees of brightness.
Active matrix formats also "provide significantly higher power
efficiency," says Mahon. "That’s why the OLED industry by
and large is evolving toward an active matrix configuration."
— Phyllis Maguire
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