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Startup Planting the Seeds of Nonvolatile Random Access Memory

Nantero, a semiconductor startup based in Woburn, Massachusetts, has raised more than $100 million to develop NRAM memory chips that combine the speed of DRAM and the persistence of NAND. But the company’s coffers have been drained by development delays and convince customers to abandon the low cost of NAND and the speediness of DRAM.

The finish line may be within range for Nantero, which recently announced that Fujitsu Semiconductor would manufacture chips based on its nano-random access memory. For Fujitsu, which plans to introduce the chips next year, Nantero’s technology will complement its other product lines, including ferroelectric random access memory – more commonly known as FRAM.

Partly funded by the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Dell Technologies, the company plans to profit from patent royalties every time NRAM memory chips are sold. Nantero says NRAM is a possible replacement for both NAND and DRAM, and the company is targeting applications from consumer electronics and automobiles to servers and industrial machines.

And the company could be close to generating significant revenue from its chips, based on tiny carbon nanotubes splattered on silicon wafers. Nantero has been hunkered down with customers in the final stages of product development. The company’s customers have designed a memory chipset for the automotive space as well as a cache for enterprise solid-state drives.

The company, which holds 170 patents, balances tens of millions of dollars on its shoulders. Last year, Nantero raised an additional $29.7 million to support more than a dozen customers building products. Over the last two decades, the company has received $121.1 million in funding from investors including Cisco Investments and Kingston Technology as well as the venture capital arm of Dell Technologies, one of the world’s largest chip consumers.

Another investor is CFT Capital, a Chinese investment firm founded by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation and financed in part by the Chinese government’s national chip fund. Nantero recently opened its first location in Beijing, with an eye toward tapping into the growing memory market in China. Importantly, Nantero’s chips can be manufactured with traditional complementary metal-oxide-semiconductors.

Nantero was 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 stayed under the radar as new generations of DRAM and NAND memory chips regularly rolled out of factories. Potential customers did not need to use Nantero’s 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 NAND has stalled. Nantero describes NRAM as lower power and denser than DRAM without sacrificing speed. In addition, NRAM is nonvolatile, which means it does not require refreshing like DRAM, potentially putting it in competition with other new technologies, such as magnetoresistive random access memory and 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 lets companies manufacture memory chips without worrying as much about the purity of the carbon, which can affect performance, reliability and endurance.

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