Published: January 17, 2012 Category: OLEDs
OLEDs have broken through in the past 18 months, and there is renewed hope in the industry that OLEDs will finally live up to their long-promised potential.
Full color, AMOLED displays are now part of the mainstream, with Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone products leading the way. OLED TVs appear (finally) ready for commercialization in the next year or so. OLED-based lighting is also already on the market; although these products consist almost entirely of luxury lighting at the present time, large lighting panels for offices may just might be the next big thing in the lighting market. (Or at least the big-thing after the next big thing.)
One materials company – Universal Display (UDC) – seems to be benefitting strongly from these trends. UDC has pioneered phosphorescent OLED (PHOLED) technology for quite a few years now and it is widely accepted that only the use of PHOLEDs will enable OLEDs to reach the efficiencies required for truly deep penetration by OLED technology.
Already, almost all commercially available AMOLED products already employ PHOLED technology, with only the blue PHOLED emitters still lagging (a bit) in lifetime performance. And there can be no doubt that UDC is a huge beneficiary from this situation.
Nearly all of the important OLED manufacturers are already UDC licensees, including Samsung, which currently makes more than 90% of the OLEDs in the world. Other UDC licensees include LG, Lumiotec, AUO, Chi Mei/Innolux, Panasonic Idemitsu Lighting, Pioneer, Konica Minolta, Philips, Sony, and NEC. That’s a pretty impressive list!
Understandably, in the suddenly booming state of the OLED industry, other firms would like to be in the PHOLED space too. Duksan and Sun Fine Chemical are two possible contenders in this space, for example. It is also well understood that the only effective way to undermine UDC’s dominance in the OLED materials market is weaken UDC’s IP position. Based on this understanding, patent challenges – some successful, others not – have been brought in Japan, Korea, and the EU.
So one has to ask the question, “just how vulnerable is UDC really?” And our answer to this question is “Not very. At least not in the short term.”
NanoMarkets believes that the most likely scenario is that UDC will remain a key player in the OLED materials market for the foreseeable future; and the dominant player in its chosen niche for some time to come. The facts of the case are that (1) only some of the UDC IP – and not the key¬ patents – is under attack; or at least this is what UDC says, (2) in most geographies, UDC patents remain unchallenged so far.
UDC holds key patents related to iridium phosphors. No one disputes this, and recent “news” that UDC’s patent had been invalidated in Europe was misleading. The EU patent office upheld UDC’s claims on iridium emitters, although it did request that claims be based on other core materials be separated out into other applications.
It is also true that three patents have been invalidated in Japan in a suit brought by Korean materials supplier Duksan, which has a vested interest in not losing its Samsung business to UDC. But the invalidated patents were not fundamental composition of matter patents. Also, the JPO decision is under appeal, so the ultimate outcome is still unknown.
Meanwhile, the UDC juggernaut rolls on. The company has continued to sign both new and extended licensing agreements. For example, both Pioneer and Panasonic Idemitsu licensed the UDC technology last year, and Samsung recently renewed its license of UDC technology, saying that it plans to start using UDC green emitters and plans to commercialize products with UDC blue materials "as soon as they can be qualified." Even Lumiotec, which had been holding out without a UDC license and launched its first products on an all-fluorescent platform, recently reached an agreement with UDC and is now transitioning to PHOLED technology.
And, UDC has also its own de facto development line in the US in the form of its joint development project for OLED lighting with Indian firm Moser Baer. The heavy involvement of UDC means that the Moser Baer line can effectively serve as a "test bed" for UDC materials, which will further strengthen UDC’s ability to maintain its dominance in the industry. In addition, UDC has at one time or another announced working partnerships with DuPont (in the solution-processed material business), GE (in the R2R OLED business), Novaled (once rumored to be a UDC acquisition target), and others.
We also think that UDC could benefit tremendously from the growth of the OLED lighting industry, where efficiency will be a key factor in contributing to OLED lighting’s cost proposition and ability to compete against other alternative lighting technologies like LEDs. And we expect OLED lighting to use very large amounts of material after 2015 or so.
And we believe that the various IP challenges currently amount to the usual semi-desperate attempts by other materials firms to gain some competitive advantage over UDC, which cannot be achieved by any other means.
And yet, and yet. None of the above should be a reason to turn a blind eye to UDC’s very real vulnerabilities going forward, we think will manifest themselves in one form or another.
For example, we expect that UDC is going to end up in an increasing number of patent disputes in important countries including the U.S. Now, UDC has plenty of cash on hand to defend itself against any future attacks on its IP; the company is currently sitting on about $250 million raised from investors last spring. But as we know, courts are unpredictable institutions and it seems reasonable to believe that at some time and in some place, some court is going to invalidate an important UDC patent.
Also, the EU court decision makes it clear that UDC cannot claim property rights over non-iridium cores. Such cores are in development and when they appear, the force behind UDC’s patents may be seriously diminished.
The good news for UDC is that commercialized non-iridium materials would seem to be years off; although surprises happen. Meanwhile, to adjust to the new realities, UDC will have to transform itself into a new kind of company and we are beginning to see the company do just that through its expansion into other OLED materials – hosts, HILs, ETLs, encapsulation chemistries, etc.
With these other materials, UDC can capitalize on its reputation for high quality and it strong supply chain relationships. And it may even develop strong new IP along the way.
But in the meantime, we suspect that the assault on UDC is only just beginning. As the OLED industry gets bigger and bigger there is more and more incentive for other firms to come gunning for it.
Disclaimer: The author owns some shares of UDC (PANL).
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