Network: In the beginning, there was Genesis

... and in a few years, there will be a revolutionary method of displaying information on a screen. By Niall McKay
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Describing rock musicians as angels may seem like pushing irony to breaking point, but that is just what the Brit-rock group Genesis has become. "Angels" are individuals who invest in high-risk venture, and Genesis has put money into one of the UK's hopes for a high-tech future - Cambridge Display Technology (CDT).

The group's management company, Hit and Run, is just one of CDT's angels. Others include Herman Hauser, the founder of Acorn Computers, John Sculley, the former president and chief executive of Apple Computer, and the University of Cambridge itself. The merchant bank Hill Samuel is also raising pounds 3m to develop a manufacturing facility.

CDT was founded after Richard Friend and Andrew Homes, of the university's department of physics, discovered that screens developed from carbon-based plastics or polymers could solve many of the problems associated with today's technologies. Cathode ray tubes, as used in desktop PCs and televisions, are cumbersome, while the active matrix liquid crystal displays of laptop computers are expensive and require backlighting.

LCDs also need three transistors (one for each colour) for every pixel or point in the screen, which means a 10-inch screen needs about 1.5 million transistors. It is almost impossible to manufacture either very big or very small screens.

CDT's screens use light-emitting polymers that emit their own red, green and blue light. Because polymers act as both conductors and insulators, no isolation is needed, so each pixel size can be much smaller than on an LCD display. That gives the screens a higher resolution than a CRT or LCD. It also means it is possible to make screens of virtually any size that are thin, cheap to manufacture, and will be of higher resolution than anything on the market today.

The drawback is that the technology is at least two years away from full production, while other technologies such as plasma display panels (PDP) are due to hit the market shortly, says Mark Gostick, business development manager for CDT.

"We will be taking the same route as LCD took some years ago," he adds. "We will spin off the technology for small products such as back-lights for cell phones. Then, as we build up our manufacturing capabilities, we hope to move in to production of computer and TV screens."

Last month, the company got together with Xyratex, a UK circuitboard and disk-drive manufacturer, to develop the capability to produce the new screen technology.

"While we have a very good technology, we needed the backing of a well- known and well-trusted manufacturer, and Xyratex has an excellent track record," Gostick says.

Philips, Hewlett Packard, Motorola, AT&T, Pioneer and Thompson CFS are evaluating polymer technology. Most are either talking to CDT or trying to work around its patent, although Pioneer is working on a technology based on a Kodak patent.

"This a perfectly normal practice with new patents," Gostick says. "But we are confident we will survive attempts to wrest the technology from us and will be the first to market."

Hill Samuel is convinced, anyway. "It's very unusual for us to get involved with technology start-ups," says Nick Gowlland, corporate finance manager. "But we strongly believe this technology has a future. And we would not get involved with CDT if we thought that any company contesting the patent would be successful."

Philips scientists also believe CDT's approach is correct.

"Polymer technology certainly has a future. That does not mean that we will see this technology replace VGA or SVGA screens," says Emile Staring, research scientist for Philips. "But I am fairly certain that polymers will be used in other applications such as hi-fi, car and electrical equipment LED displays."