Given how fast technology now evolves, it can be easy to take for granted the efforts of pioneering companies, whose research and development pave the way for hundreds of items we use every day.
Wolfspeed Inc is one such company that for over three decades has been a global leader and innovator of wide bandgap semiconductors, harnessing cutting-edge silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN) materials to produce products that “change the world for the better”.
These special elements possess critical advantages over other semiconductor materials, including the ability to handle higher voltages and power, higher operating temperatures, faster switching, better efficiency, and significantly smaller form factors. This makes them ideal for challenging applications across a wide range of intensely demanding industries such as telecoms, military and defense, aerospace, as well as renewable energy and petrochemical industries.
Wolfspeed’s products cover power-switching and radio frequency devices in everything from electric vehicles, 5G, solar components, power supplies, satellites, and much more.
As a pioneer in SiC semiconductors, Wolfspeed now boasts the world’s broadest, most capable portfolio of next-generation solutions. In addition to expanding production facilities located in North Carolina, California, and Arkansas, the company’s portfolio is being enabled by the opening of new production and fabrication facilities, as the company seeks to keep up with ever-increasing demand for its high-performance products.
Wolfspeed was borne from the efforts of six founders, Neal Hunter, Thomas Coleman, John Edmond, Eric Hunter, John Palmour, and Calvin Carter – five of which were graduates of North Carolina State University. In 1983, the founders, one a research assistant professor and the others, student researchers, were seeking ways to leverage the properties of silicon carbide to enable semiconductors to operate at higher operating temperatures and power levels.
The team devised a way to grow silicon crystals in the laboratory, and in 1987 founded the company, which was originally known as Cree Research, to produce SiC that could be used commercially in both semiconductors and lighting.
In 1989, the company introduced the first blue LED, which enabled full-color LED display technology and opened the door to longer-lasting and more efficient applications such as computer screens, other electronics, and eventually, smartphones. Two years later, Wolfspeed released the world’s first commercial SiC wafers, delivering the industry’s most robust, highest-quality materials for new devices.
The company went public in 1993 and by 1996, Wolfspeed’s blue GaN-on-Silicon-Carbide LEDs made their way into Volkswagen dashboards, launching a trend in the automotive industry that is still reflected today.
A range of innovative product developments over the years has helped to revolutionize keyboards and displays in the cell phone industry, along with power supplies and lighting systems. Wolfspeed’s first consumer product, household LED bulbs, qualified for an Energy Star rating by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Various acquisitions and divestments across the company’s power and lighting businesses have culminated with a billion-dollar New York fabrication plant seeing Wolfspeed pivot into a pure semiconductor company.
Joining Wolfspeed over five years ago to translate the company’s vision and strategy into world-class execution and bottom-line growth, president and chief executive officer, Gregg Lowe, is a veteran of the semiconductor industry. Before Wolfspeed, he served as president and CEO of Freescale Semiconductor, a company with products serving automotive, industrial, consumer and communications markets. During this time he led a successful merger with NXP Semiconductors, creating an industry leader with combined revenue of more than $10 billion. Prior to Freescale, Lowe spent almost three decades at Texas Instruments in several executive roles. He also holds numerous board positions including Silicon Labs in Texas and the Semiconductor Industry Association in Washington DC.
One of Wolfspeed’s original founders, John Palmour, continues to serve as the company’s chief technology officer. Responsible for 386 publications and 75 U.S. patents in the areas of processing and device designs, Dr. Palmour has championed and innovated SiC and GaN solutions for power and RF applications for over 30 years. He has helped transform the traditionally slow-moving and risk-averse industries with a “no-such-thing-as impossible” approach to innovation.
Wolfspeed’s ever-increasing portfolio of products are engineered to enable its customers to deliver ground-breaking systems that do more, whilst also using energy more efficiently. The company’s SiC and GaN materials products consist of bare wafers, along with further specialized epitaxial wafers, which are targeted at customers who use them to manufacture products for RF, power, and other applications. Corporate, government, and university customers also buy the materials for research and development directed at similar devices.
Within its Power Device business, Wolfspeed’s products consist of Silicon Carbide Schottky diodes, metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (MOSFETs), and power modules which provide increased efficiency and faster switching speeds and as a result, reduced system size and weight over comparable silicon power devices. These Power products are sold to customers and distributors for use in applications such as electric vehicles, and charging infrastructure, solar inverters, as well as server, uninterruptible, and industrial power supplies.
While the RF devices business consists of GaN-based die, high-electron-mobility transistors (HEMTs), monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs), and laterally diffused MOSFET power transistors that are optimized for next-generation telecommunications infrastructure, military, and other commercial applications. RF devices that are made from SiC and GaN can provide improved efficiency, bandwidths, and frequency of operation when compared to standard silicon or gallium arsenide. Wolfspeed also provides custom die manufacturing for GaN HEMTs and MMICs that allow a customer to design its own custom RF circuits to be fabricated by Wolfspeed, or have them design and fabricate products that meet the customer’s specific requirements.
After decades of forging new technology adoption and transformation, Wolfspeed semiconductors are continuing to lead the industry through unrivaled expertise and capacity. More and more industries are leveraging this performance as they develop next-generation applications and devices using Wolfspeed’s materials and designs. Demand for the company’s products continues to accelerate at a rapid pace, while the wider industry also continues to be supply constrained.
Expanding materials production is currently core to Wolfspeed’s long-term strategy to further its market leadership and better serve the growing needs of customers. As a result, facility improvements have been of major focus.
Originally announced in 2019, Wolfspeed’s new $1.2 billion New York facility, which was supported by a $500 million contribution from the state of NY, went live in April 2022. The factory will produce silicon carbide chips and will be used in many products including electric vehicles, solar power inverters, and 5G infrastructure. This will allow the company to effectively position itself as a key supplier to companies in several super-cycles that will all need a steady stream of SiC chips.
Further building on this capacity, Wolfspeed announced in September that it would build another new, state-of-the-art, $1.4 billion materials manufacturing facility in Chatham County, North Carolina, strategically located near its existing Durham factory. The investment is targeted to generate a more than 10-fold increase from its current SiC production capacity from the Durham campus, supporting the company’s long-term growth strategy. It will also help accelerate the adoption of SiC semiconductors across a wide array of end-markets and unlocking a new era of energy efficiency, with construction anticipated to be completed in 2024.
In addition to being the world’s largest 200mm silicon carbide manufacturing and fabrication plants, the facilities will help fuel the company’s surging $35 billion+ pipeline which has more than doubled in a single year.
While the facilities require considerable capital, government programs such as the CHIPS and Science Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in August, provide billions of dollars in new funding to boost domestic research and manufacturing of semiconductors in the United States.
Furthermore, the scope for growth and demand for SiC is enormous. In the United States alone, the President set a goal for 50% of all new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030, setting up car manufacturers such as General Motors and Tesla to see a surge in electric vehicle sales to meet the demand. While the rollout of 5G in the country, coupled with ongoing global chip shortages also provides a lucrative pipeline for Wolfspeed’s locally produced materials.
Wolfspeed closed out the 2022 fiscal year with a strong performance that saw revenue increase to $746.2 million, up 42% year-on-year when compared to $525.6 million in 2021. Supported by the world’s first fully automated fabrication plant with its New York facility, the company made significant strides in growing the top line, while also improving profitability. Gross margins improved, increasing to 33.4% from 31.3%, resulting in an impressive gross profit boost to $249.3 million, up from $164.6 million in the prior year.
The completion of Wolfspeed’s LED business divestiture in 2021 represented a key milestone in its transformation to focus on the semiconductor industry. Despite significant investments to expand long-range capacity to capitalize on multi-decade growth opportunities across electrical vehicles, 5G, and industrial applications, the company’s net losses per share continue to shrink.
Looking ahead, consensus estimates are anticipating comparable sales growth in the year, with sales to grow over 43% to exceed more than $1 billion for 2023. While earnings per share estimates are forecasted to turn positive at $0.16 per share, up from a loss of $0.50 in 2022.
Wolfspeed has continued to maintain a well-established leadership position in the sale of SiC and GaN products. As market adoption of the technology grows with rapidly expanding power and RF device designs, they have experienced increased competition from companies such as Coherent Corp, SiCrystal, IQE, and Showa Denko. However, the company believes its leading technology and leveraged production scale position it to reliably supply production volumes to the device manufacturers in the market.
While Wolfspeed’s power and RF devices compete with solutions offered by established players such as Mitsubishi, Infineon Technologies, and ON Semiconductor Corporation, among several other small and large companies, its products provide a compelling option for customers based on performance, reliability, and overall system price.
Wolfspeed is leading the transformation from silicon to Silicon Carbide and Gallium Nitride, as it attempts to shape the future of semiconductor markets through the transition to electric vehicles, the move to faster 5G networks, the evolution of renewable energy and energy storage, and the advancement of industrial applications. With concerted efforts to expand capacity to supply multiple lucrative markets well underway, Wolfspeed appears to be at an inflection point for growing profitability.