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French deep tech spin-out Diamfab crystallizes hopes of diamond semiconductors supporting green transition

As more money flows into deep tech to solve global problems like climate change, PhD entrepreneurs from Europe’s top universities and labs are increasingly turning their research into companies.

Diamfab, a French spinout founded in 2019, is one example. Its co-founders, CEO Gauthier Chicot and chief technology officer Khaled Driche, both PhDs in nanoelectronics and recognized researchers in the field of semiconductor diamond, left the Institut Niel, a laboratory at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Institut Néel) and holds two authorized patents. their belts.

Since then, Chicot and Driche have registered more patents and hired a third co-founder, Ivan Llaurado, as chief revenue officer and director of partnerships. They have also raised €8.7 million in funding from Asterion Ventures, Bpifrance’s French tech seed fund, Kreaxi, Better Angle, Hello Tomorrow and Grenoble Alpes Métropole.

This interest arises because the paradigm for semiconductor diamonds has changed over the past two years. “Diamonds are no longer a laboratory subject: they have become an industrial reality, with startups, manufacturers interested in this space and partners around us paying attention,” Chicot told TechCrunch.

Out of the lab

Silicon remains the most widely used semiconductor material in electronics because it is ubiquitous and cheap. But one hopes that one day other options will surpass it, and not just in the lab. Tesla’s decision to use silicon carbide instead of silicon is a major step in that direction, and diamond could be next.

Because diamond is naturally more resistant to high temperatures and more energy efficient, Diamfab envisions a future where specific parts will require a much smaller surface area of ​​synthetic diamond than silicon carbide, which would make it price competitive.

The company’s long-term goal is to make more efficient semiconductors with a lower carbon footprint while supporting what Chicot calls “the electrification of society,” starting with transportation.

Diamond-based electronics open the door to applications in the field of power electronics – imagine smaller batteries and chargers with more autonomy, as less temperature control is required, which is particularly important for the automotive industry and electric vehicles. But diamond wafers can also be used in nuclear batteries, space technology and quantum computing.

The case for diamonds as a better alternative to silicon is not unfounded. Diamfab builds on Institut Néel’s 30 years of research and development in growing synthetic diamonds. Its founders hope to take the technology out of the lab. “We want to be helpful pioneers,” Chicot said.

Winning the i-Lab Jury Prize in 2019 was a turning point for the company. It is co-organized by French institutions and brings funding and a sense of recognition that helps the team both internally and externally.

With this seal of approval, “the bank will trust you even if you don’t generate any sales,” Chicot said. “It was a real advantage to get this award in the first place. Partly because we have great technology, and partly because technology is so important to the world.”

diamond promise

French public sector investment bank Bpifrance, one of the organizers of the i-Lab Prize, is doubling down on its investment in Diamfab with funding from the French Tech Seed Fund, which Bpifrance manages on behalf of the French government as part of France 2030.

When silicon becomes a commodity, Diamfab’s high value-added diamond wafers can be manufactured in Europe and sold at a premium due to their higher efficiency, which is also relevant for the green transition. Decarbonization is one of France’s key goals for 2030, and diamonds can help.

Their carbon footprint will be lighter because diamonds require less surface than silicon carbide, and also because Diamfab synthesizes diamonds from methane. In the future, this source could be biomethane, providing a commercial outlet for recycling this by-product.

Diamfab Wafer Diodes

Image Source: diamfarb

However, much of this is still in the future. Diamfab is less than a few decades away from its goal, but says it will take five years for its technology to support large-scale production of diamond wafers that meet industry requirements. This means applying its expertise in growing and doping diamond layers on one-inch wafers to the four-inch wafers already produced in silicon carbide. Even if there is enough funding to support a small pilot production line, this will take several years.

For some venture capital firms, this five-year period makes Diamfab no longer viable. While these may subscribe to the idea of ​​reindustrializing Europe through cutting-edge innovation, their liquidity cycles make such investments more difficult. But Chicot ultimately managed to raise €8.7 million, which will help the startup get through its pre-industrial phase.

Grenoble, the hub of deep tech

Chicot said the group of investors gathered around Diamfab was “balanced” and included public players, evergreen fund Asterion Labs, and investors from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, where Diamfab is located, and its city of Grenoble. supporter.

While the AI ​​hype in Paris does make sense, Grenoble is probably the closest thing to France’s Silicon Valley. The Alpine city’s focus on electronics, thanks in large part to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Louis Neal, has made it a deep tech hub and now part of the greentech and sovereign tech conversations.

Grenoble startups that come to mind include Verkor, which raised more than €2 billion for its gigafactory in northern France, and Renaissance Fusion, which raised $16.4 million last year to build nuclear fusion in Europe. technology. But Diamfab may benefit more from working with large players with local ties, including CEA, Schneider Electric, Soitec and STMicroelectronics.

There is no doubt that more semiconductors will be produced in the French Alps. As both the EU and the US pass the Chip Act to reduce dependence on Asia, France will provide 2.9 billion euros in aid for the upcoming joint factory of STMicroelectronics and GlobalFoundries, and Soitec recently opened a fourth nearby factory. Now, Diamfab hopes it can play a role in realizing diamond’s full potential in the semiconductor field.

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