RF GaN intellectual property (IP) activities continue to grow, driven by next-gen telecom and military technologies requirements
The radio frequency (RF) GaN market is experiencing impressive growth, mainly driven by telecom and military applications. The overall GaN RF market is expected to increase from $740M in 2019 to more than $2B in 2025, with a CAGR of 12%, according to Yole Developpement.
In this report, the Semiconductor team gives a thorough description and analysis of the patent landscape related to GaN-based RF electronics, covering the whole value chain from epitaxial structures to RF semiconductor devices, circuits, packages, modules and systems. Analysts have selected and analyzed more than 6,300 patents published worldwide up to August 2020, representing more than 3,000 patent families (inventions) filed by more than 500 different organizations. This 2020 edition comprises 2x more patent families and more than 100 new players compared to the 2019 edition.
In 2019-2020, the Chinese organizations represented more than 40% of the patent applicants (Americans = 23%, Japanese = 10%, Europeans = 3%). The rise in RF GaN patents from China-based companies follows a more general trend as the country transitions from a manufacturing to an innovation-driven economy. This trend also reflects the situation in the RF industry, with a Chinese market that shows exploding demand for commercial wireless telecom applications and Chinese companies already developing next-gen telecom networks. Moreover, following the US-China trade war, numerous China-based companies are trying to develop GaN RF for 5G infrastructures internally.
Over the last few years, the level of creativity to address all the technology and manufacturing roadblocks for GaN RF devices has been impressive. More recently, IP developments are accelerating on topics further down the value chain: RF circuits, packaging, and modules/systems. The current patent activity suggests that manufacturing and technology issues still need to be solved in monolithic integration of different RF semiconductor devices; thermal management at epi-stack, semiconductor device and package levels; linearity at semiconductor device and circuit levels; and protection, matching and distortion compensation at circuit level.
GaN RF leading companies should not underestimate China's IP as it is changing the landscape
The RF GaN patent landscape is currently dominated by American and Japanese companies such as Cree, Fujitsu, Sumitomo Electric, Mitsubishi Electric, Intel, MACOM, Toshiba, Qorvo and Raytheon. The IP competition has been stronger in the US, as demonstrated by a much higher number of granted patents (1,200+) in contrast with China (640+), Japan (440+) and Europe (250+). However, the patenting activity is now focused on China.
Cree has the stronger IP position thanks to numerous fundamental patents, especially for GaN-on-SiC technology. Over the past 5 years, inventive activity at Cree, Sumitomo Electric and Toshiba stalled. These IP leaders have developed broad patent portfolios covering a wide range of RF GaN technology nodes. The reduced IP activity could be a sign of confidence in their already robust RF GaN patent portfolio. Intel and MACOM have strongly increased their IP activity since 2017, especially for GaN-on-Silicon technology. Intel is currently the most active patent applicant in the RF GaN field, with a record-high level of activity of patenting new inventions over the last couple of years which could, down the road, position it ahead of Sumitomo Electric, Fujitsu or Cree in terms of IP leadership.
In China, CETC and Xidian University have the most prolific inventive activity. Other players such as HiWafer, Dynax, Hanhua and China's top public research entities UEST, IMECAS, SCUT and Institute of Semiconductors have built sizeable RF GaN IP portfolios, and ambitious new players are entering the IP landscape (Boxin, Reactor Microelectronics, TUS-Semiconductor, Hatchip, Nexgo, Bosemi, HC Semitek, A-INFO, RDW, Chippacking, China Mobile, Gaxtrem, etc.). European RF players Thales, BAE Systems, Infineon, Ampleon, Ericsson, etc. are only playing a small part in the current RF GaN IP dynamics.
In Taiwan, the foundries Win Semiconductors, TSMC and GlobalWafers entered the RF GaN IP landscape first in the mid-2010s, following by others such as VIS and Wavetek in 2018. South Korean entities are not very active. ETRI continued to file few new inventions every year over the past decade. In 2016, RFHIC acquired GaN-on-Diamond-related patents from Element Six, then we observed the entry of Wavice, UTel and Wavepia more recently.
Strategic and technological paths followed by leading companies and newcomers for RF GaN technologies
This report provides the main IP dynamics of the RF GaN field and offers a complementary vision of the RF GaN competitive landscape through patenting activity. In this report, we give deep insights on the IP portfolios and strategies of key RF GaN players and newcomers. We analyze their patented technologies, IP strength, markets of interest and future intents, and we highlight the strategic and technological paths they are following for RF GaN technologies.
In this 2020 edition, we detail the IP landscape and recent patents of note related to GaN-on-SiC, GaN-on-Silicon, GaN-on-Diamond and GaN-on-Sapphire. We analyze and describe the IP activity related to RF transistors (HEMT, HBT, E-mode, etc.), RF diodes (varactor, RTD, IMPATT, etc.) and RF acoustic wave devices (SAW, TC-SAW, FBAR, BAW-SMR).
Furthermore, the report includes a section dedicated to GaN-based MMIC-related patents. Overall, we highlight patents dealing with manufacturing and technology issues still of interest to IP players (heat dissipation, monolithic integration, linearity, impedance matching, etc.), and/or targeting MW/mmWave frequency ranges or 5G applications.
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