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Startup Claims Game-Changing Memory Advancement

Unity Semiconductor is hoping its technology will become a replacement for the flash memory used today in solid-state drives for laptops and smartphones like Apple's iPhone.
A Silicon Valley startup that has been secretly developing a NAND flash alternative for seven years introduced Tuesday memory technology that it claims is faster than flash and packs far more storage in the same amount of space.

Unity Semiconductor is hoping its technology will become a replacement for the flash memory used today in solid-state drives for laptops and in chips that provide storage for smartphones such as Apple's iPhone, portable media players, and other mobile devices. NAND flash is used in such devices because it can retain data when the power is off.

Unity claims to have built prototypes of its "CMOx" memory technology and plans to start offering a 64-Gb chip by mid-2011, which is about twice the capacity of today's NAND flash technology.

"We see ourselves in the two-year horizon for production volumes of our first product, a 64-Gb storage-class memory," Darrell Rinerson, president and chief executive of Unity, said in a statement. Rinerson is a former executive of Micron Technology and Advanced Micro Devices.

Unity's innovation is in the way it stores data. While traditional flash memory uses transistors, Unity has based its technology on ions and the way they move through certain materials. As a result, the company can stack more memory on top of each other to increase storage on the same footprint, while achieving five to 10 times the write speed of today's flash, Rinerson said.

"We believe only CMOx has the small cell size to beat NAND flash in cost and density," he said.

To get its product to market, Unity will have to partner with a major semiconductor manufacturer. The company has not named a partner. In addition to making memory products, Unity also plans to engage in "selective intellectual property licensing," which means it's likely to try to avoid having its technology commoditized.

The flash memory market has been struggling for quite awhile from oversupply and more recently suffered a second blow from poor consumer electronics sales in the economic recession. As a result, the market is expected to see a 15% drop in revenue this year and is not expected to regain profitability until 2010, according to iSuppli.

How Unity does in a recovering market remains to be seen. The company's investors include venture capital firms August Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Morgenthaler Ventures and an unnamed major hard-disk drive manufacturer. The company has raised a total of $75 million in funding to date.


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