The Grand Alliance In Flat Panels

French entrepreneur Jean-Luc Grand-Clement was dazzled by what he discovered in October, 1991, during a technology-scouting visit to a laboratory in Grenoble. LETI, a state-run research institute at the base of the Alps, had a treasure trove of patents covering the raw science for an alternative to liquid-crystal displays (LCDs)--those ubiquitous screens on notebook computers, camcorders, and watches.

Indeed, LETI's new technology had the potential to leapfrog Japanese LCDs. Grand-Clement quickly bought an exclusive license to all 16 patents, mapped out a business plan, and found investors willing to take on Japanese goliaths such as Sharp, NEC, and Toshiba in the $11.5 billion flat-panel-display market.

WIRED UP. Today, Grand-Clement's fledgling company, PixTech, based in Rousset, France, is producing six-inch-diagonal prototype screens that require less power than LCDs, look sharp from any angle, and are just one-tenth of an inch thick--two-tenths, including the electronics--about half an LCD's thickness. Unlike the costly active-matrix LCDs used for notebooks, which take three transistors to activate each picture element, or pixel, PixTech's field-emission displays (FEDs) don't use any transistors on their pixels. A simple wire grid supplies electric voltages that cause millions of "microtips" to fire, turning pixels on and off (diagram). Manufacturing takes half as many steps, so production costs ought to be one-third lower than for LCDs. That should appeal to PC makers: Screens make up roughly 40% of a portable computer's cost.

CEO Grand-Clement's most compelling achievement may be the unusual alliance he designed to launch FEDs. He created a flexible partnership with four big guns: Motorola, Texas Instruments, Raytheon, and Japan's Futuba--each of which was already pursuing the technology independently. All members pool their resources, while remaining competitors.

The partners aren't just dabbling. On Aug. 11, Motorola announced plans to spend upwards of $100 million on a display-division headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., that will house FED-related research and pilot production. Thomas D. Petrovich, Texas Instruments Inc.'s marketing manager for flat-display products, says his company was stung by Japan's takeover of the LCD market in the mid-1980s. "We're not going to let that happen again."

If it works, the alliance could become a model for others trying to bring risky and complex technologies quickly to market. PixTech acts as a clearinghouse and can sublicense one partner's display technology to all of the others. Working separately, says TI's Petrovich, progress would be slow, and "even the first guy would get to market too late." The cross-licenses expire after three years, so partners don't feel trapped. At first, members balked at sharing proprietary research. But Grand-Clement, a former Motorola engineer who has fathered three technology startups, argued that the alliance's combined financial and human resources--a total of 250 scientists and engineers--could act as a high bar for others to clear.

TINY SPIKES. Because the alliance members are so diverse, they should be able to attack multiple markets without always competing head-to-head. Motorola is interested in exploring the FED technology for notebook computers, games, dashboard displays, and cellular phones. TI will focus mainly on portable computers, while Raytheon is aiming at the defense instrumentation market.

Flat-panel displays make an attractive target. Market researcher Stanford Resources Inc. in San Jose, Calif., expects flat-panel sales will double, to $21.6 billion, by 2000. LCDs today dominate, with 87% of the flat-panel sector. But with its high quality and low cost, FED is "the hottest display technology in the U.S. right now," says David E. Mentley, research director at Stanford Resources.

The principle behind FEDs is similar to that of cathode-ray tubes in television sets. The difference: Instead of just one "gun" spraying electrons against the inside of the screen's face, there are as many as 500 million of them, fashioned by chipmaking techniques to take the form of tiny spikes on a plate. Grand-Clement expects to reach the same yields in one year that LCD manufacturers took four years to attain. Ultimately, he believes, FEDs will cost 30% less than LCDs. "We don't have any technological hurdle today. There is nothing more to invent," he says.

"CRITICAL MASS." The main challenge now is ramping up production. For the moment, PixTech, at its Montpellier plant, is focused on making screens of up to six inches aimed at industrial markets such as medical instruments and defense, where margins are high and production volumes lower. But if the market takes off quickly, Grand-Clement may try to raise more capital in 1996 to ramp up large-scale production for 10-inch screens in the U.S. Like LCDs, FEDs may not be suited for TV-size screens because the thin glass sheets are hard to handle. Another challenge: Keeping the microtips from oxidizing and losing effectiveness.

PixTech is up against Japanese giants that are spending billions of dollars to improve LCD technology--and quietly investing in their own FED research. In the U.S., where FED technology originated in the 1960s at Stanford University, at least 10 companies are developing field-emission displays, including Houston-based SI Diamond Technology Inc., which has acquired a large body of Russian patents for diamond cathodes. Silicon Video Corp., based in Cupertino, Calif., has backing for its $90 million research and development effort from Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and others. And Micron Technology Inc., based in Boise, Idaho, has shown an FED camcorder viewfinder.

Each approach has advantages, but only PixTech has consistently demonstrated bright, defect-free displays, says display expert Henry F. Gray of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. All the competition may actually be a good sign: "Historically, nothing ever happens until there's a critical mass of companies," says Stanford Resources' Mentley. For now, the rivalry is just what PixTech needs.

PixTech's Tough Rivals

It faces other field-emission display companies-as well as competing technologies

LIQUID CRYSTAL Crystals either block light or let it shine through, depending on voltage. LCDs dominate the market. But they're expensive.

PLASMA These easy-to-make screens work on the same principle as fluorescent lights. They're the front-runner for big, wall-hanging TV screens.

ELECTROLUMINESCENT Phosphors are sandwiched inside a grid of wires. Advantages: Ruggedness and the ability to be viewed from any angle.

DIGITAL MIRROR DEVICES Texas Instruments' postage-stamp-size chip etched with 400,000 tiny mirrors could be used to project wall-size images.