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Transphorm Founder Heats Up MIT Enterprise Forum with Talk of Energy Efficiency

Goleta company is working to revolutionize power conversion by reducing waste heat through a material called gallium nitride

Goleta-based startup Transphorm claims that it could potentially save enough energy to power the West Coast for a year.

UCSB electrical engineering professor Umesh Mishra and student Primit Parikh came up with an idea years ago — to revolutionize power conversion by greatly reducing waste heat through a material called gallium nitride (GaN).

“We thought the material truly had the ability to be the perfect switch,” Mishra told Noozhawk at Wednesday night’s Central Coast MIT Enterprise Forum at the Cabrillo Arts Pavilion. “It has the efficiency of a mechanical switch but the functionality of an electronic switch.”

Transphorm develops and manufactures electronic power converters that can reduce waste heat in many appliances. Mishra grabbed a laptop charger to explain, converting electricity as 110 volts AC to something between 12 and 18 volts DC and emits heat in the process.

“Electricity is not hot. Heat is hot, waste is hot. So when you touch it you know it’s inefficient,” he said. “Another example of inefficiency is, the best switch in the world is just a mechanical switch, something on the wall. When you turn it off, it’s really off. It doesn’t dissipate any power. When you turn it on, it doesn’t consume any power.”

Comparatively, the silicone-powered dimmer switch is warm relative to the on-off switch. Many of today’s tools waste electricity as heat, but GaN does a better job of holding voltage and dissipating less energy, Mishra said.

Gallium nitride is “God’s gift to mankind, at least today” because silicone has “reached its physical limits,” he said.

“Vegas consumes 33 terawatt hours of energy a year, the West Coast consumes more than 270 terawatt hours of energy a year,” said Mishra, adding that Transphorm can reduce an industrial motor’s energy consumption by 207 terawatt hours per year. “What we can do at Transphorm when it’s fully placed in action is save more energy than what is consumed in all of the Western United States.”

Since Transphorm’s 2007 inception, the company has grown to more than 100 employees and raised more than $63 million in funding from sources such as Google Ventures. Transphorm harvests its own material and manufactures its product in Goleta. While its integration into the motor market may be years down the road, Mishra said it will impact the data server power supply market by the end of the year.

“You have to have a huge amount of applicability,” he said. “You can’t hang your hat on one thing because the market is fickle, the consumer is fickle and solutions by competitors can completely knock you off.”

Transphorm built an accessible solution that can be implemented in today’s market without much of the government’s help, said Frank Foster, DFJ Frontier Fund venture capitalist.

“Science investments are a little bit on the out right now, in a Facebook and Instagram type of world, it’s hard to find investors who will have the patience and understanding for your technology,” Foster said, adding that the government has become an “unreliable source.” “The description of the technology often gets lost in the need to present what is going to be the real defining value to your product.”

But Mishra said none of it would’ve been possible without a good partnership with UCSB and a solid student-teacher relationship.

“I fundamentally work on that transition while they are students,” he said. “The way I look at students as you teach them for a few years, and I’ve always said this, it’s kind of a philosophy from India: If your student is not better than you, then the education process has failed.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @NoozhawkBiz, @noozhawk and @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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