Kateeva in Bloomberg: Your Next TV Might Roll Out of a Printer

By Bruce Einhorn
September 6, 2016

Kateeva’s inkjet equipment promises to drive down prices for OLED sets

Mak­ers of elec­tron­ics hop­ing to win over con­sumers with sharp­er, more vivid dis­plays are turn­ing to a screen tech­nol­o­gy called organ­ic light-emit­ting diodes (OLEDs). Con­sum­ing less pow­er than liq­uid-crys­tal dis­plays, or LCDs, OLEDs can also bend into all sorts of shapes. Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics uses them in its lat­est gen­er­a­tion of Galaxy smart­phones, and LG Elec­tron­ics fea­tures them in its top-of-the-line TVs.

The industry’s migra­tion away from LCDs has cre­at­ed an open­ing for Katee­va, a Newark, Calif., com­pa­ny that’s devel­oped an inkjet-print­ing method to pro­duce OLED dis­plays. Katee­va, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “writ­ing,” has raised more than $200 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal since it was spun off from an MIT lab in 2008. Investors include Sam­sung, Spark Cap­i­tal, and TCL Cap­i­tal, the ven­ture cap­i­tal arm of one of China’s lead­ing elec­tron­ics com­pa­nies. “We feel OLED is the future,” says Tong Xuesong, vice pres­i­dent of TCL.

Mak­ing OLED dis­plays large enough for TVs is dif­fi­cult, which is one rea­son a 65-inch 2016 mod­el OLED TV from LG sells for $4,000, more than twice the price of a com­pa­ra­ble LCD set. The process starts with punch­ing tiny holes into a met­al sten­cil called a mask; the mask is then placed over a back­plane and sprayed with the organ­ic com­pounds that form the OLEDs. Slow and cost­ly, it wastes a lot of mate­ri­als that end up on the sten­cil rather than the display.

Kateeva’s equip­ment, which isn’t com­mer­cial­ly avail­able, can be more effi­cient, because it prints direct­ly onto the back­plane. The start­up has teamed up with DuPont and Sum­it­o­mo Chem­i­cal to devel­op OLED inks suit­able for its print­ers. The specs are exact­ing: The lay­er of mol­e­c­u­lar com­pounds deposit­ed by the inkjet must be no more than 50 nanome­ters thick and able to dry with­in 90 sec­onds. With inkjet tech­nol­o­gy, “there can be a print­ed OLED tele­vi­sion in the mar­ket for $1,000,” says David Flat­tery, dis­plays busi­ness man­ag­er for DuPont Elec­tron­ics & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “That’s what we’re targeting.”

Katee­va co-founder Conor Madi­gan dis­miss­es some of the OLED TV sets on the mar­ket today as “half-OLED” because they rely on a fil­ter to dis­play col­ors. That makes the screen thick­er and dilutes the sharp­ness, he says, explain­ing that Kateeva’s inkjet can print red, green, and blue pix­els indi­vid­u­al­ly, which sim­pli­fies the pro­duc­tion process. “I can go from 20 machines and drop it down to 3,” Madi­gan says. In a state­ment, LG Dis­play said its OLED man­u­fac­tur­ing method cre­ates dis­plays that use less pow­er and have bet­ter colors.

Tokyo Elec­tron, a semi­con­duc­tor equip­ment mak­er, also offers inkjet-print­ing tools for OLEDs. But Kateeva’s tech­nol­o­gy is “more mature,” says TCL’s Tong. Alber­to Moel, an ana­lyst with San­ford C. Bern­stein, agrees that Katee­va has an edge on rivals. Madi­gan and his team “have been pound­ing at it for years,” he says. “They are pret­ty far ahead.” Tokyo Elec­tron declined to comment.

Not everyone’s that bull­ish. OLED mate­ri­als are very sen­si­tive to mois­ture; fig­ur­ing out a way to put them into an ink that can work in a print­er is a major chal­lenge, accord­ing to Jer­ry Kang, an ana­lyst at IHS Mark­it, an indus­try researcher. IHS projects that OLED sets will make up 2.3 per­cent of the TV mar­ket glob­al­ly by 2020, up from just 0.4 per­cent this year.

Katee­va will begin fill­ing some orders for its print­ing equip­ment next year, Madi­gan says, and expects to go into com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion by late 2018 or ear­ly 2019. “We are com­plet­ing the design work for the first gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “That’s our home­work over the next year and a half.”

The bot­tom line: Katee­va, a start­up that counts Sam­sung among its back­ers, has devel­oped an inkjet-print­ing method for mak­ing OLED displays.

Read at Bloomberg