Nantero has poured over a hundred million dollars into the development of memory chips that combine the speed of DRAM and the persistence of NAND. But the company has struggled to commercialize its NRAM technology, which has been delayed again and again over the last decade.
There could be light at the end of the tunnel for Nantero. On Thursday, the company said that Fujitsu Semiconductor would introduce NRAM chips to the market next year. For Fujitsu, the new memory chips complement its ferroelectric random access memory – more commonly called FRAM – which is not scalable to higher densities.
Nantero makes money by licensing NRAM technology to manufacturers like Fujitsu, which operates several CMOS wafer fabrication facilities. The company portrays NRAM as a possible replacement for either NAND or DRAM, targeting applications from consumer devices and automobiles to servers and industrial machinery.
Funded by Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Dell Technologies, among others, Nantero has been hunkered down with customers in the final stages of product development. One of the company’s customers has designed a product with DDR4 interface and lower price per gigabit than DRAM. Others have built an NRAM cache for solid state drives and embedded memory for the automotive space.
In December, Nantero raised $29.7 million in its seventh major round of funding. On Thursday, the company highlighted investors like Cisco Investments and Kingston Technology to show that the electronics market is giving NRAM the thumbs-up. Another investor is Dell Technologies Capital, the venture capital unit of Dell, one of the world's largest purchasers of chips.
Nantero, which has been granted 170 patents in the United States, is using the funds to support customers bringing products to market and help others start development. The company, which has raised $121.1 million over the last 17 years, said that it works with “more than a dozen partners and customers.”
Another investor was CFT Capital, a Chinese investment firm founded by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, the country's most advanced foundry. The firm’s funds were raised in part from the Chinese government's multibillion-dollar “Big Fund.” Nantero recently opened its first Beijing office, with an eye toward tapping into the growing memory market in China.
The recognition was hard fought for Nantero, founded by C.E.O. Greg Schmergel, C.T.O. Thomas Rueckes and former C.O.O. Brent Segal. For years, the privately held company watched as DRAM and NAND chips were regularly refreshed, giving potential customers little reason to try NRAM. To stay afloat, the company offloaded its government business unit to Lockheed Martin in 2008.
The company’s chances have improved as manufacturing advances have slowed for DRAM and the capacity of single-layer NAND has stalled. Nantero describes NRAM as lower power and denser than DRAM without sacrificing speed. Like NAND, NRAM is nonvolatile, which means it does not require refreshing like DRAM, potentially putting it in competition with chips based on 3D XPoint.
Nantero’s NRAM uses extremely thin straws of carbon deposited randomly on a substrate. The technology uses the resistance of these carbon nanotubes to represent bits. The random distribution of the nanotubes also allows companies to manufacture memory chips without worrying as much about the purity of the carbon, which can affect performance, reliability and endurance.