A Clas-SiC case of evolution
With a new CEO set on pursuing bold plans for expansion, is Clas-SiC changing course?
BY RICHARD STEVENSON, EDITOR, CS MAGAZINE
Initial encounters can be misleading. At times first impressions are misguided, to be replaced with a far more informed view after digging a little deeper.
That could be the case for many following the fortunes of Clas-SiC, the Scottish SiC fab. It has just announced the appointment of a new CEO, who only joined the company as chief operations officer in summer 2023; and ambitious plans are now being touted for a major expansion, both in capacity and the technology portfolio.
However, go behind the headlines and what at first glance appears as a couple of major changes is actually a continuation along the same trajectory. The new CEO, Jen Walls, is an old hand, who devoted many years to helping lead Raytheon’s SiC foundry services, from which Clas-SiC spawned. When Walls joined Clas-SiC, her accession to CEO was already part of the company plan, and given that turnover has doubled in the last 12 months, efforts to increase capacity are a logical, natural progression.
Another contributor to continuation, rather than change, is retaining the three major strands of the company. “We have fast turnaround prototyping; low-to-medium volume manufacturing; and we also operate a licencing and royalty arm to the business, to give customers that have more capacity-hungry devices a route to high volume manufacturing,” says Walls.
One strength of this three-pronged approach is that it enables Clas-SiC to work with a wide range of customers from all over the globe. They include those that have gone no further than developing prototypes, and benefit from the reassurance that Clas-SiC can support their entire product lifecycle; and those that have already developed their SiC technology, and want to progress to low rate production.
An engineering pedigree
Walls has devoted most of her career to engineering. As a teenager she won an engineering scholarship at Exxon Chemicals, enabling her to study integrated engineering at the local college on a block release basis while working at the ethylene plant.
“When I graduated, the oil industry was in downturn, but thankfully Scotland’s silicon Glen was booming,” recollects Walls. “So, my semiconductor journey started with NEC semiconductors, as a photo equipment engineer. I then moved into NEC's new 200 millimetre fab in Livingston, which at the time was the largest, most advanced fab in Europe.”
When this fab closed in 2001, Walls moved to Raytheon, where she progressed through the ranks to take management positions while completing an MBA. She views the highlight of her time there as her role as SiC business manager, leading the process development team. However, she could not accomplish all she hoped for, because Raytheon did not give the SiC division the freedom it needed to thrive: “I always wanted the silicon carbide foundry within the defence company to be a standalone business,” says Walls.
Seeking a new challenge, she started work as a business manager in the health sector, a role that allowed her to continue to draw on her engineering and manufacturing skills. “However, it never gave me the same fire in my belly. I always knew I would be back in the industry.”
And six years later she was, when in July 2023 she joined Clas-SiC and resumed a working relationship with many colleagues from her time in the SiC division at Raytheon.
While preparing to take over from the outgoing CEO Rae Hyndman, who is moving into retirement, Walls focused on trying to improve operational execution.
“It's worked extremely well,” says Walls. “It's allowed me to make sure I fully understand the workings of the operation here at Clas-SiC, and it's allowed me to build a relationship with customers and employees, and importantly as well, the Clas-SiC board.”
Viewing the change in CEO as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, Walls has much praise for Hyndman, whom she credits for taking the company from conception back in 2017 to qualification and then rapid growth, including an increase in headcount from 24 to the 80 employees today.
“Clas-SiC has grown extremely quickly,” says Walls. “We're about a year ahead of where we thought we would be under the leadership of Rae.”
A legendary supporter
As well as benefitting from the support of the outgoing CEO, Walls is grateful for the guidance of the executive chairman, Carl Johnson, who cut his teeth founding II-VI more than 50 years ago, and led that company for more than 30 years.
“I have weekly goal and mentoring sessions with Carl,” says Walls. “He has a wealth of experience and always brings a valued perspective to the table.”
Walls is taking over the reins in an enviable position, with 70 percent of the fab capacity for 2024 already allocated. This healthy orderbook is partly behind the decision that now is the right time to expand.
“We're looking for about a £24 million investment,” says Walls. “That will take our capacity to 2.5 times where we are today.” The funding will be used to expand the clean room space and purchase additional tools for future process development and operational resilience.
Efforts in this direction are already underway. “Just now we are working on our 3.3 kV process design kit for MOSFETs,” enthuses Walls.
With the chance to lead a growing company developing exciting new technologies, it’s of no surprise that Walls is clearly revelling in her return to an engineering company.
Main image: The new CEO, Jen Walls, supporting Senior Equipment Engineer Graeme Dickson.