China is now driving RF GaN patenting
The last two years have marked a turning point for RF GaN patenting, says Knowmade
The RF GaN market is experiencing impressive growth, driven by telecom and military applications. Market research firm Yole predicts a GaN RF market increase from $740 million in 2019 to more than $2 billion in 2025, with a CAGR of 12 percent. As the market has grown, a change has occurred RF GaN patenting: activity is now focused on China.
In its latest RF GaN patent landscape report, covering everything from epitaxial structures to RF semiconductor devices, circuits, packages, modules and systems, Yole sister company Knowmade has analysed more than 6,300 patents, representing more than 3,000 patent families (inventions) filed by more than 500 different organisations. “This 2020 edition comprises two times more patent families and more than 100 new players compared to the 2019 edition”, says Nicolas Baron, CEO and co-founder of Knowmade.
The first RF GaN patent applications were filed in the 1990s. The level of activity took off in 2004 and accelerated significantly from 2015. Today, the IP dynamics are driven by two major factors: (1) China, and (2) the shift of IP further down the value chain.
Chinese patenting activity has been accelerating since 2015. Over the last two years, we witnessed a remarkable increase in patents coming from China and many Chinese newcomers entering the RF GaN IP landscape. In 2019-2020, the Chinese organisations represented more than 40 percent of the patent applicants (Americans = 23 percent, Japanese = 10 percent, Europeans = 3 percent).
“The rise in RF GaN patents from Chinese companies follows a more general trend as the country transitions from a manufacturing to an innovation-driven economy”, says Nicolas Baron. “This trend also reflects the situation in the RF industry, with a Chinese market that shows exploding demand for commercial wireless telecom applications and Chinese companies already developing next-gen telecom networks. Moreover, following the US-China trade war, numerous China-based companies are trying to develop GaN RF for 5G infrastructures internally”, he adds.
The RF GaN patent landscape is currently dominated by American and Japanese companies such as Cree, Fujitsu, Sumitomo Electric, Mitsubishi Electric, Intel, MACOM, Toshiba, Qorvo and Raytheon. The IP competition has been stronger in the US, as demonstrated by a much higher number of granted patents (1,200+) in contrast with China (640+), Japan (440+) and Europe (250+). However, the patenting activity is now focused on China.
Cree has the stronger IP position thanks to numerous fundamental patents, especially for GaN-on-SiC technology. Over the past 5 years, inventive activity at Cree, Sumitomo Electric and Toshiba stalled. These IP leaders have developed broad patent portfolios covering a wide range of RF GaN technology nodes. “The reduced IP activity could be a sign of confidence in their already robust RF GaN patent portfolio”, comments Nicolas Baron.
Intel and Macom have strongly increased their IP activity since 2017, especially for GaN-on-Silicon technology. Intel is currently the most active patent applicant in the RF GaN field, with a record-high level of activity of patenting new inventions over the last couple of years which could, down the road, position it ahead of Sumitomo Electric, Fujitsu or Cree in terms of IP leadership.
In China, CETC and Xidian University have the most prolific inventive activity. Other players such as HiWafer, Dynax, Hanhua and China’s top public research entities UEST, IMECAS, SCUT and Institute of Semiconductors have built sizeable RF GaN IP portfolios, and numerous new players are entering the IP landscape (Boxin, Reactor Microelectronics, TUS - Semiconductor, Hatchip, Nexgo, Bosemi, HC Semitek, A-INFO, RDW, Chippacking, China Mobile, Gaxtrem, etc.).“The China IP rise should be taken seriously as it changes the landscape in which international companies operate”, says Nicolas Baron.
While China currently emphasises quantity over quality, many RF GaN patents from top Chinese organisations are up to international quality standards (CETC, Xidian University, HiWafer, Dynax, etc.). Furthermore, some Chinese companies which have global ambitions are filing or acquiring patents in key countries (Dynax, Hanhua, Zhuhai Crystal Resonance, ZTE, Huawei, CCT, Nexgo). Foreign companies are also now increasingly applying for patent protection in China (Mitsubishi Electric, NXP). For domestic or foreign businesses operating in China, this increases the risk of patent infringement which also becomes hard to manage.
European RF players Thales, BAE Systems, Infineon, Ampleon, Ericsson, etc. are only playing a small part in the current RF GaN IP dynamics. In Taiwan, the foundries Win Semiconductors, TSMC and GlobalWafers entered the RF GaN IP landscape first in the mid-2010s, followed by others such as VIS and Wavetek in 2018. South Korean entities are not very active in terms of patent filings. ETRI continued to file few new patents every year over the past decade. In 2016, RFHIC acquired GaN-on-Diamond-related patents from Element Six, then we observed the entry of Wavice, U-Tel and Wavepia more recently.
Over the last few years, the level of creativity to address all the technology and manufacturing roadblocks for GaN RF devices has been impressive.
“More recently, IP developments are accelerating on topics further down the value chain to address manufacturing and technology issues related to monolithic integration, packaging, RF circuits and modules/systems. This trend is expected to accelerate as more mature RF products implement GaN technology”, affirms Nicolas Baron. The current patenting activity suggests that manufacturing and technology issues still need to be solved in monolithic integration of different RF semiconductor devices; thermal management at epi-stack, semiconductor device and package levels; linearity at semiconductor device and circuit levels; and protection, matching and distortion compensation at circuit level.
GaN-related patenting activity is prolific; more and more players are entering the playground and the GaN IP landscape is evolving. On the one hand, some GaN startups and pure-play companies remain on the lookout for promising business opportunities and are developing transversal GaN IP portfolios to address not only RF applications but also power electronics.
On the other hand, RF companies from outside the GaN industry, and OEMs, are seeking to take leading positions on RF GaN by developing patents claiming the use of GaN technology in RF modules/systems. There are now enough companies with transversal portfolios, and enough enforceable patents worldwide which address most technology issues in the whole value chain, to say that the freedom-to-operate of practicing entities is shrinking, and to predict that complex licensing and legal battles will likely arise once GaN RF devices enter the high-volume commercial markets.
Now the questions are: will Chinese IP shape the future of the GaN RF industry? And which IP owners will be the GaN RF leaders in the 5G, post-COVID world?