NVE Corporation develops and sells devices that use spintronics, a nanotechnology that relies on electron spin rather than electron charge to acquire, store and transmit information. We manufacture high-performance spintronic products including sensors and couplers that are used to acquire and transmit data. We have also licensed our spintronic magnetoresistive random access memory technology, commonly known as MRAM.
NVE History and Background
NVE is a Minnesota corporation headquartered in a suburb of Minneapolis. We were founded in 1989 by James M. Daughton, Ph.D., a recognized pioneer in spintronics. Our common stock became publicly traded in 2000 through a reverse merger and became NASDAQ listed in 2003. Since our founding, we have been awarded more than $50 million in government research contracts, including more than 30 MRAM development contracts. These contracts have helped us build our intellectual property portfolio. Over the years our product sales have increased and we have reduced our dependence on research contracts. Fiscal years referenced in this report end March 31.
Much of the electronics industry is devoted to the acquisition, storage, and transmission of information. We have focused on three applications for our spintronic technology: magnetic sensors, couplers, and memories. Sensors acquire information, couplers transmit information, and memories store information. In that sense, our technology can provide the eyes, nerves, and brains of electronic systems.
Magnetic sensors can be used for a number of purposes including detecting the position or speed of robotics and mechanisms, or for communicating with implantable medical devices. We believe our spintronic sensors are smaller, more precise, and more reliable than competing devices.
Couplers are widely used in factory automation, providing reliable digital communication between electronic subsystems in factories. For example, couplers are used to send data between robots and central controllers at very high speed. As manufacturing automation expands, there is a need for higher speed data and more channel density. Because of their unique properties, we believe our couplers transmit more data at higher speeds and over longer distances than conventional devices.
Near-term potential MRAM applications include mission-critical storage such as military, industrial, and anti-tamper applications. As its density increases and cost per bit decreases, MRAM could replace semiconductor memories in cellphones, computers, and other electronic devices enabling smaller, faster, and more power-efficient electronics.
Our Enabling Technology
Our designs are generally based on either giant magnetoresistance or tunneling magnetoresistance. These structures produce a large change in electrical resistance depending on the electron spin orientation in a free layer.
In giant magnetoresistance (GMR) devices, resistance changes due to conduction electrons scattering at interfaces within the devices. The GMR effect is only significant if the layer thicknesses are less than the mean free path of conduction electrons, which is approximately five nanometers. Our critical GMR conductor layers may be less than two nanometers, or five atomic layers, thick. Technological advances in recent years have made it practical to manufacture such small dimensions.
The second type of spintronic structure we use is based on tunneling magnetoresistance (TMR). Such devices are known as Spin-Dependent Tunnel (SDT) junctions, Magnetic Tunnel Junctions (MTJs), or Tunneling Magnetic Junctions (TMJs). SDT junctions use tunnel barriers that are so thin that electrons can “tunnel” through a normally insulating material to cause a resistance change. SDT barrier thicknesses can be in the range of one to four nanometers (less than ten molecules).
In our products, the spintronic elements are connected to integrated circuitry and packaged in much the same way as conventional integrated circuits.
Our vision is to become the leading developer of practical spintronics technology and devices. We plan to do that by selling the products described below and licensing our MRAM technology. To grow product sales, we plan to broaden our sensor and coupler product lines, and longer-term to target larger markets such as consumer electronics.
Our Products and Markets
We operate in one reportable segment. For financial information concerning this segment see “Note 8 – Segment Information” of the Financial Statements included elsewhere in this Report.
Sensor Products and Markets
Our sensor products detect the presence of a magnet or metal to determine position or speed. The GMR changes its electrical resistance depending on the magnetic field. In our devices, GMR is combined with conventional foundry integrated circuitry and packaged in much the same way as conventional integrated circuits. We sell standard or catalog sensors, and custom sensors designed to meet customers’ exact requirements. Our sensors are quite small, very sensitive to magnetic fields, precise, and reliable.
Our standard, or catalog, sensors are generally used to detect the presence of a magnetic or metallic material to determine position or speed. We believe our spintronic sensors are smaller, more precise, and more reliable than competing devices. Our major market for standard sensors is factory automation.
Custom and medical sensors
Our primary custom products are sensors for medical devices, which are customized to our customers’ requirements and manufactured under stringent medical device quality standards. Most are used to replace electromechanical magnetic switches. We believe our sensors have important advantages in medical devices compared to electromechanical switches, including no moving parts for inherent reliability, and being smaller, more sensitive, and more precise. Our sensors can be customized using customer-specific integrated signal processing and design variations that can include the range and sensitivity to magnetic fields, electrical resistance, and multi-sensor elements configuration. Future custom sensor target markets include consumer and automotive electronics.
Coupler Products and Markets
Our spintronic couplers combine a GMR sensor element and an “IsoLoop” integrated microscopic coil. The coil creates a small magnetic field that is picked up by the spintronic sensor, transmitting data almost instantly. Couplers are also known as “isolators” because they electrically isolate the coupled systems. Our IsoLoop couplers are much faster than the fastest optical couplers.
We have four lines of coupler products: IL600-Series passive-input couplers; IL700/IL200-Series digital-input couplers; new, cost-effective IL500-Series couplers; and IL400/IL3000-Series isolated network signal couplers.
MRAM Products and Markets
MRAM uses spintronics to store data, combining the speed of semiconductor memory with the nonvolatility of magnetic disk drives. MRAM is inherently nonvolatile, meaning the data remains even if power is removed. MRAM has been called the ideal or universal memory because it has the potential to combine the speed of SRAM, the density of DRAM, and the nonvolatility of flash memory.
Data is stored in the spin of the electrons in thin metal alloy films, and read with spin-dependent tunnel junctions. Unlike electrical charge, the spin of an electron is inherently permanent. In MRAMs, the spin of the electrons is set with tiny bursts of energy. We have invented several types of MRAM memory cells and modes of operation.
Advanced MRAM designs that we are developing or have developed include Vertical transport MRAM (also known as VMRAM), magnetothermal MRAM, and spin-momentum transfer MRAM. We believe such design approaches have the potential to increase the scalability of MRAM.
In the near term, MRAM could replace battery-backed-up SRAMs in mission-critical systems such as military, factory control, point-of-sale terminals, and gaming electronics. MRAM has the potential advantages of being simpler, lower cost, and more reliable than battery/memory systems. Long term, MRAM could address the market for ubiquitous high-density memory.
Our fabrication facility is a clean-room area with specialized equipment to deposit, pattern, etch, and process spintronic materials. Most of our products are fabricated in our facility using either raw wafers or foundry wafers. Foundry wafers contain conventional electronics that perform housekeeping functions such as voltage regulation and signal conditioning in our products.
Each wafer may include thousands of devices. We build spintronics structures on wafers in our fabrication facility. We either saw wafers to be sold in die form, or wafers are sent to Asia for dicing and packaging. Packaged parts are returned to us to be tested, inventoried, and shipped.
Sales and Product Distribution
We rely on distributors who stock and sell our products in more than 75 countries. Distributors of our products include two of the largest electronic component distributors in the world: Digi-Key Corporation and the Premier Farnell Group. Our distributor agreements generally renew annually. In addition, Avago Technologies, a leading supplier of solid-state couplers, distributes private-branded versions of some of our couplers under an agreement that expires in June 2010.