Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Matt Francis - Ozark Integrated Circuits

 May 22, 2019

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, Jeff Moore talks Arkansas innovation with Matt Francis and Jim Holmes of Ozark Integrated Circuits. They discuss analog and mixed signal integrated circuits for extreme environments, Ozark IC’s work with the United States Air Force, and recently received grants from NASA to promote the exploration of Venus.

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Jeff Moore:
Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. podcast. I'm your host Jeff Moore, executive vice president of marketing and research for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Today our guests are Matt Francis, founder, president, and CEO of Ozark Integrated Circuits, and Jim Holmes, chief technical officer of Ozark IC, which is a fabulous semiconductor company spun out of research at the University of Arkansas, and headquartered at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The firm specializes in the design of analog and mixed signal integrated circuits for extreme environments for both high and low temperatures. How extreme you ask? Well, Matt's team recently won grants from NASA to facilitate further exploration of Venus, which happens to be the hottest planet in the solar system. So I would say that's pretty extreme, wouldn't you Matt and Jim?

Matt Francis: Yes, it's hot.

Jeff Moore:
Welcome to the podcast to you both, and we appreciate you taking the time to be with us today, and what a fascinating subject that we're going to dive into today, and just allow our audience to learn a little bit more about what you do and what propelled you to start Ozark IC. And that is correct how you pronounce your company correct, Ozark IC?

Matt Francis:
Yeah, that's correct. Ozark IC.

Jeff Moore:
Tell us a little bit about integrated circuits, and the IC part of your name as it's referred to in your world.

Ozark Integrated Circuits

Matt Francis:
Integrated circuits are to the layman, if you look at a circuit board, if you broke open something, there's usually a green circuit board and there's all these little black boxes. We work on the black boxes, so it's integrated circuits are basically thousands and millions of switches all combined together to do some sort of advanced function, and so most of those are made
out of silicon, the vast majority, and they have certain limitations of how hot they can work, how cold they can work. So where Ozark IC comes in is where you want to go beyond that spectrum of temperature, so do you want to operate at really high temperatures, or really low temperatures in space, things like that, and that's usually where we come in and we work with more exotic materials and design techniques to make it all work.

Jeff Moore:
I guess it's obvious to say from the introduction there, that your company was born out of the research. How did you come up with this idea for starting Ozark Integrated Circuits? How did it all begin?

Matt Francis:
I did my PhD at the university under Alan Mantu. I got exposure to extreme environment electronics through several projects there, and that's exactly I did my dissertation on radiation- hardened circuits and as far as that leading to a company, I've told people before, is that if you're not sure if you want to start a company, you'll work for a startup. I worked through graduate school, I worked at another startup, and that's actually where I met Jim. That was a software startup, so we were looking at the other side of things, like analyzing designs instead of doing designs for extreme environments.

Matt Francis:
The company ultimately wasn't successful, but learned a lot of things, and after it went, we decided with some other local entrepreneurs and professors, decided to start Ozark, give it a go. And that's now been over eight years and with Ozark really, it's more about doing the design side of it. We're not a software company, we're a hardware company with design hardware. However, we found we tend to write a lot of software to design our circuits, so we're actually a weird hybrid I guess, because if you'd this kind of circuits, there aren't really tools off the shelf for doing it, modeling tools. We're off on our own, so we develop a lot of our own inhouse tooling, design capability, things like that.

Jeff Moore:
Yeah, with that said, and maybe Jim, you can jump in here and talk a little bit about this. You're not the typical hardware design company. I recently read something on your website that you're not only modeling and designing integrated circuits, systems and chips for extreme environments but in fact, you helped to write the book on it. How did that come about, how have you been able to innovate in that space in ways that have been relevant for the needs of the context that you work in?

Jim Holmes:
With respect to attacking non-mainstream engineering problems, a lot of these problems are described within in applications. So for example, we began our journey on extreme environments in particular, looking at cryogenic operation of circuits. Cryogenics means really, really cold. Super, super cold. Because that you can imagine in the solar system, NASA has been exploring the solar system. There are parts of the solar system that are just extremely cold, and then there's also this issue of what's called ionizing radiation. We started our foray into the extreme environment working on really cold circuits with ionizing radiation and as Matt mentioned, his graduate work really was a seminal research thrust in how we could get, and we could predict how circuits are going to work in these extreme environments.

Jim Holmes:
That really set the tone. He followed the interests from NASA into the high temperature area, but it really started looking at things that are operating in a very, very cold environment with lots of radiation and figuring out how to make the circuits work in these environments. And so we had the privilege of working with just a great team of researchers from here at the university,
Dr. Alan Mantu, some professors at Georgia Tech, John Kressler and then some really awesome teams at Boeing and VA Systems. That launched a whole thought process on how do you attack extreme environmental electronics. And then when the opportunity emerged to start the company, we already had in the back of our minds, the underpinnings of how that company would look like, and we had some ideas of what we would want to try first.

Jim Holmes:
So actually our first project, our first NASA SBIR was taking a process that we knew we could operate in a very, very cold environment and so we started there, and that was our first
build. In the first six months of the company, it became evident that the things that we had learned in the software startup that didn't succeed, the things that we had bloodied our knuckles on, and the mistakes that we made there, we were able to avoid all of those right away. And then attack a really tough problem that NASA had scoped out and responded with our own capabilities.

Extreme Environments

Jeff Moore:
Yeah, we use that word a lot, and I'd like to really maybe take this time to just think through extreme environments, because we use that loosely, but just for our listeners and I automatically
think about temperature right, and you guys are talking about Venus and Mars, and there's this range what, 500 degrees Celsius to negative 120 degrees Celsius or something like that. But help us understand a little bit about extreme environments,because it's more than temperature ranges that are that extreme.

Matt Francis:
Traditional extreme environments, there's probably actually more like standard temperature ranges, but then you worry about vibration, humidity, things like that.

Jim Holmes: Even pressure.

Matt Francis:
Pressure, that's another one.

Jim Holmes:
Venus has really high pressure.

Matt Francis:
Yeah, the pressure on Venus is 100 times Earth pressure on top of everything, so in the case of Venus, you have to worry about atmosphere, what it's made up of, because Venus is also got nasty...it's mostly CO2, but there's some other nasty gases in there that will eat through your circuits.

Jeff Moore:
Acid clouds or something like that.

Matt Francis:
You get used to anything.
At certain altitudes on Venus, it rains sulfuric acid. So it's not a pleasant place. Radiation's one, so that's one we started tackling when we put the first satellites in space and started noticing weird things happening with electronics in them, and figured out that we'd have ionizing radiation affect the circuits in many different ways. Sometimes over time, it just makes them quit working, or it interrupts their performance, they lock up, and so that's a whole, that’s an interesting space for space. We've come and gone to doing work in that area. A lot over the years. Right now, it's primarily the extreme environment we work in is the really high temperatures. There's also optical extreme environments, so
ultraviolet light is one, so really short wavelengths you get that damages silicon, and you've seen UV fade your curtains and things like that. It damages circuits so if you want to look at the things in UV, with silicon, you have a limited lifetime and so that's another space that we have done a lot of work in, is ultraviolet light and sensing it with rugged sensors.

Expertise

Jeff Moore:
So in terms of the application of your technology and obviously, this is a great example of how research came from the University of Arkansas. I guess you would call it commercialization.

Would that be fair to say, and technology transfer? Would that be fair to say that this is a good example of that sort of effort?
Matt Francis:
Absolutely yes. Obviously you have just the research that comes the expertise that comes from students out of the university, we have...see if I get this right. I think we have five of our technical staff have 11 degrees in university. So you can imagine, there's a lot of very specialized expertise that comes with each of those advanced degrees. It's three PhDs, U of A on staff.

Jeff Moore:
Some of those were part of the EPSCoR program as well, correct?

Matt Francis:
Yes, yes. For many of those have been involved in the EPSCoR program. We're working with professors that are working on EPSCoR funding right now. So that's one way, that's a big reason we have our center of excellence, and Arkansas and this area as the university produces those students, and then we had many collaborative research projects over the years that have enabled that taking things from the lab and putting them in that location.

Jim Holmes:
From the point of staffing, I think there's a large percentage of engineering graduates from the University of Arkansas who have to address the prospect of leaving the state to get their first job. And so we've been very, very excited about the fact that we've been able to hire students from the University of Arkansas and to be able to some leverage there, backgrounds in either the research that they did as graduate students, and leverage the special knowledge that they accumulated for extreme environment electronics.

Jeff Moore:
Let's use this as a segueway to then move from the research and the commercialization of the research. The amazing thing to us, is just how much of a need there is for what you guys are creating there, and that for me, is obvious in just the grants you're receiving. A couple of grants that I want to talk about first is the NASA award, and then talk a little bit, one that was
actually pre-empted that I believe or was previous to that with the United States Air Force. But the grants you received from NASA, tell us a little bit about your work with NASA and the Venus missions.

Matt Francis:
Sure, I think we were saying those are our sixth and seventh. We looked at each other, I guess that is the sixth and seventh award from NASA. NASA was the first agency we won an award from, and we've had a very good relationship with NASA over the years. Our work on Venus actually started from another project that we were doing with NASA that was targeting slightly less ambitious goals than Venus, and in the process, we learned about the technology that NASA had actually developed, that could work on Venus, and so we actually were able to get

into a licensing agreement with NASA. NASA has a great licensing program. We worked with the folks at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland on that. So what we were able then to do is start working with the NASA researchers on the breadth of knowledge that they had in trying to make electronics work on surface of Venus. We had a couple of false starts, some ideas for how we could apply it, and then finally started having some real traction with the technology.

Matt Francis:
I think we've filed now, two, three, follow-on patents to the portfolio that NASA developed and was licensed. Then a very productive area for us for basically applying the technology. That's the relationship part of it. But what we've done is, NASAs developed this integrated circuit technology that was basically designed to work on Venus. We were able to add some new design techniques to it that would extend its versatility, increase its density, reduce its supply range and things like that, basically make it more useful, and one of the targets that we had for that is basically make it compatible with kind of a standard aerospace bus, like 28 volts, which is super common in the aerospace industry. It's like the 12 volts in a car, 28 volts is the one of the de facto standards. So we developed some really interesting things with it. We've started with transceivers, basically let you communicate to and from somewhere really hot, but like where we like to start with the technology is if you can't communicate it, then what's the point.

Matt Francis:
If you're going to have digital control somewhere, you need to be able to command and control and get data back. So we built transceivers, we've done sensing systems, we recently just completed on the grant you were just talking about, we did a motor driver, so now you're getting the actuation, so you can actually move something. This would be like moving a stage for a drill on the surface of Venus. And that model we built, we demonstrated for 1100 hours at 470C, which is the nominal Venus temperature. To our knowledge it's the longest anyone's demonstrated a circuit like that at those temperatures.

Jeff Moore:
You've got industrial strength tools and then you've got Venus. Space age industrial strength.

Matt Francis:
We call it ... Venus is like our ... it's our moon shot. If we can make it work on Venus, we can make it work anywhere. So for commercial application-wise, we're taking what we learned there, and applying it for geothermal, downpole geothermal, downpole oil and gas. A lot of geothermal wells actually look a lot like Venus. 400C plus, well over 100 times pressure. For aerospace, you can imagine in a jet engine, it could be 1000 degrees C at the afterburner end of the military engine, so having things sensing and actuators that can work at those temperatures, and replace more mechanical systems, hydraulic systems, pneumatic systems, so those are all application spaces for that.

Jeff Moore:

There is an article I read recently, and this was put out by NASA, just learning a little bit more about you guys, but it was survivable systems for extreme environments. They're talking about missions to comets or close to the sun, high velocity impacts, are a real concern with impact velocities that they say reach greater than 500 kilometers per second or something, so they're talking about a lot of stuff that I really don't understand, to be honest, but the one thing that I gleaned from that is they said that for operations in survivability in extreme environments, these innovations by your company are continuing to emerge and become and are crucial to really the ultimate success and development of a future NASA missions. Just thinking about the hardware challenges that you have to overcome, how is Ozark IC approaching these challenges in ways that maybe companies like Honeywell for example, won't do, or maybe they just haven't figured out.

Jim Holmes:
In terms of why we do it, if you talk to anybody at NASA or the Air Force, or anybody in aerospace, the acronym that they will talk to you about is called SWAP. S-W-A-P, which is size, weight and power. In spacecraft, as in aircraft, a significant portion of the weight of the aircraft is the cabling between either the avionics and actuators, or pumps, or motors, or signals and sensors, and the weight of the cabling is a significant part of that. And so where the demand for our technology is getting a lot of free attention, is that we can reduce the cabling weight by having circuits that operate in a high temperature domain, either like Matt said, near the back of the jet engine, or on the skin of an aircraft, or down hole, and geothermal wells, what have you, and so being able to have electronics that operate in those domains means that you can do a lot of processing and aggregation of sensing into one node. We call it a smart node.But the smart node aggregates all this information and then can transmit it across simply just two wires.

Jim Holmes:
And instead of having dozens and dozens of wires going from the cold domain into the hot domain, you just have a pair of wires. And the electronics pay for themselves in size, weight and power because you don't have to carry all this copper around inside the airplane or inside the spacecraft, and that goes directly to the bottom line in fuel consumption, whether it's rocket fuel, whether it's jet fuel, or whether it's operational time, and the overall cost of operating it, so we've had companies in the aerospace industry give us a formula that tells us exactly how much we're saving the US government by aggregating these electronics down in size, weight and power. Everybody knows this, and so that's really where we're bringing to bear the technologies, whether it's the high temperature IC, the high temperature packaging, the intellectual property that we've developed for communicating from one temperature domain to another, so you answer your question, why companies like Honeywell for example, I'd really like to believe that we're smarter than all those guys at Honeywell. I wasn't raised to believe that, but...

Matt Francis:
One of the things that a small business will just take the higher risk approaches, and there's that whole, we don't know any better. So we might try something that somebody with more

experience might be able to talk themselves out of, so part of our resources are limited, but you can try whatever you want with the resources you have. Many people that I know in the
SBIR, small business research world, where we get our funding, so that's exactly what they see the attention of this funding. It's to get these really hard ideas tackled by small businesses who will try some really innovative things and break loose new technologies.

Jeff Moore:
Just a reminder to our audience, you're listening to the Arkansas Inc. podcast, and we're visiting with Matt Francis and Jim Holmes of Ozark Integrated Circuits, and we're going to take a short break and we'll come back and talk a little bit about their work with the US Air Force, and just some trends that may be looming in the future there that will allow them to continue to innovate here in the state of Arkansas.

The United States Air Force

Jeff Moore:
Welcome back to the Arkansas Inc. podcast. We're visiting with Matt Francis and Jim Holmes of Ozark Integrated Circuits and having some fascinating conversations about their work with NASA, and now I want to turn the corner a little bit a talk about your contract that was awarded with the US Air Force, and just how that technology was utilized within turbine engines. Tell us a little bit about that.

Matt Francis:
Sure, so one of the things when you work with these really high temperature devices, is you have to have something to put them in. Because if you have the chip, you have to connect it to something, right? You have to get to the outside world, and so even though we started as a chip company, we gravitated towards getting into what they call packaging in the industry, so
the things that go around the chips, what the chips are glued to, and then even getting into connectors, harnesses, all this kind of stuff, and so the work with the Air Force came around to applying some of the things we've learned after doing the really high temperature stuff and saying, hey, could we do this at slightly lower temperatures that were more urgent need for jet Engines.

Matt Francis:
So in that work, the high ends of what we're talking about is a range that's between 200 and 300 C, we're using more off-the-shelf parts. In fact, in that range, we're really not designing the chips. We're actually buying chips from other companies, but what we're doing is creating high-density substraits. So we're creating basically circuit boards that really tightly integrate all those chips into a module that will make them useful. And for jet engines, that Jim was alluding to earlier, this is where we get in to the concept of something like a smart node, so this is going from having a single box that all these sensors and wires come out of, runs all over the engine, at thermally managed, and then if you want to upgrade it, you have to redo everything, you have to pull the box off. If something breaks, you have to pull it all apart.

Matt Francis:
What we want to go to is a distributed architecture, so it's much more like what you have in your car these days, which is you have buses throughout the system, so either basically a couple
of wires and power going around the system. It can meet a sense or actually it's something you put a node on the bus. If one sensor breaks, you replace the sensor. If you decide there's
some new capability you want to add to this engine, you add it. And to do this, they need these electronic, these very light, highly integrated electronic modules that will work in this 200 to
300 C degree range. Now the challenge is versus Venus, they would be happy if we got to a Venusian day, which is what, 180 Earth days, I think. For aircraft, they want to get to 50,000 hours per liability. You can imagine, if you're on an airplane, you want it to stay up there.

Jeff Moore:
Kind of important for it to stay up there.

Matt Francis:
Kind of important. Kind of important.

Jeff Moore: That's a big deal.

Matt Francis:
Kind of a big deal. So that work has really driven us into understanding reliability. We've had to develop lots of methods for evaluating reliability of the modules we create. I guess that's the long answer to your question, but that's the work we've done with the Air Force now for the last couple years, and we're getting ready to go into another, basically into a field trial stage in the next year with those. We're building a set of prototypes that will be put into test engines at different sites around the US, and gather data and see how they do.

Jeff Moore:
So is it the expectation the technology will become more pervasive in most if not all turbine engines just because of...

Matt Francis:
Yeah, and in this work, we're riding on the backs of a lot of work that was done by many other companies to develop all these chips that would operate in this range, and where the systems integrate, and so we're making it much cheaper to integrate all those parts together and we're using some IC techniques for doing the design, so we can, basically we can manage the complexity better than it has been done traditionally, so our designs work the first time, which when you're using more expensive materials, more expensive manufacturing processes
and standards, the fewer spins of your design, it can be make or break on the product, because your prototyping runs can be incredibly expensive. So that's where we're
really broken down a lot of barriers to the prototypes and the small production runs.

Jeff Moore:
Is it your hope or expectation that this will then be utilized in a broad range within the use of turbine engines such as commercial aircraft or even defense systems, missile systems, those sorts of applications?

Matt Francis:
Yes. The technology has a very wide market application space, but it can be applied to, in this space we're starting turbine engines and also there's oil and gas. In particular is another application that can immediately make use of it. As we get from turbine engines you start in military, then you get into commercial. You throw all those qualifications and then there are definitely lots of dual-use applications and missiles, rockets, anything that is hot that you need a sensor control. Industrial furnaces and controls. It's cheaper and more pervasive. There's a lot of places it could be used.

Trends on the Horizon

Jeff Moore:
Last week, SpaceX successfully landed all three of their Falcon heavy boosters for the first time, and so just curious? Where are we in the arc of technology for space in your world, and what trends are you seeing that are on the horizon?

Jim Holmes:
Well, Ozark I see with a lot of our SBIR funding coming out of NASA, and our focus on electronics for extreme environment exploration. We watch all the same videos everybody else does about SpaceX, and we're just blown away by the things that they've been able to accomplish, and so yeah, I think the privatization of space is well on its way, and NASA has been promoting this for a long time. Promoting access to space platforms for test and development of electronics, and other work I've seen is leverage that is best we can. In fact, we've created what's called an ultraviolet smart node, it's a rugged, silicon carbide based space borne smart node and it was launched to the ISS this past January, and it's been installed on the space station, and it's basically like a suitcase-sized test array, and so NASA is going to be connecting it to the space station in May, so that we can gather telemetry from it. So we're going to have three smart nodes collecting date from low Earth orbit on the ISS here this spring.

Jim Holmes:
Fingers crossed that we'll start be screening some of the air from sensor nodes. One sensor node will be it looking off into space, so it'll be looking directly at the sun. One will be looking down at the Earth, with reflection of ultraviolet light off the atmosphere and then one will be looking aft, as the space station's moving through orbit. So yeah, we're pretty excited about that and NASA, having that space platform like that really allows us to generate a lot of good data, collect a lot of good data, and also to validate what NASA calls a technology readiness level.

You Google NASA TRL levels, there's nine levels of technology readiness, so being able to have a platform like the ISS and having access to it as a private company to develop our products and to test our products is of national interest. It's a great platform for doing that kind of development.

Jeff Moore:
Yeah, it's fascinating stuff. More amazing, that kind of stuff is happening right here in our back yard. I just think that's amazing. What ways, as we turn the corner here toward closing up, what ways has being in Arkansas, had access to the EPSCoR program, SBIR, in what ways has the state of Arkansas been able to help you compete and succeed [crosstalk 00:26:17]

Matt Francis:
So many ways. We discussed the university, and the ecosystem around that that's really started before my time, in the '90s, things with the highest electronic center up here, but then for
the state, when we started the company, like all companies, we struggled, you have to get your feet under you. At the time it was the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, that's now part of ADC. That was quickly a place that we found was incredibly supportive in helping us with our first little bit of some small grants to help us explore technologies we could transfer.
We've received some investment through ADC over the years that's been hugely successful because the SBIR program cannot pay for everything. And so a lot of these programs that the state has put in place help us fill the gaps and when you're trying to go from project to project and get things going, filling those gaps, that's life or death.

Matt Francis:
Depending on what your company's at. Those have been great. The small business technology development center at U of A and at ULAR, has been hugely successful. Very helpful. Rebecca Todd has done a ton for us, helping us with identifying markets and market sizes and even reviewing proposals. Our experience has been the ecosystem for starting hi-tech companies in Arkansas has gone from good to really great in the last eight years. We're amazed with the things that some of the groups like Startup Junkie up here have been able to do across the state. The Conductor, that program's amazing. Arkansas really is becoming known as a place that starts companies, a place to start companies, including high tech.

Entrepreneurship

Jeff Moore:
Tell us, final question. What's the most surprising thing you've learned about being an entrepreneur? Obviously you came from very technical fields in your studies. What surprised you most about the entrepreneurial world?

Matt Francis:
For a technical guy, the most important part is learning all the non-technical. That is what will make or break your company. The technology is important, but if you can't do the rest of it,

you're not going to make it, and so that's I guess for me, the number of hats I've had to learn to wear over the years is...
Jim Holmes:
Yes, yes, I was just looking at your title. Marketing communications, and research and we're just simple engineers, so the writing and the communications is extra effort for us, so I'd say the amount of writing that we're done, both technical and non-technical writing that we've had to do to get the company visible was not what I ever expected.

Jeff Moore:
So you guys, when you were growing up, did you ever envision you'd be working with space and rockets and extreme environments? Is this anything you ever thought about?

Matt Francis:
Well, when I first started, we would work with anybody that would have us.

Jeff Moore:
It's a good way to be.

Matt Francis:
For me, I actually grew up around airplanes. My dad actually started installing radios at Falcon Jet in Little Rock, so I grew up around airplanes, and had always wanted to get into aerospace. Kind of followed my passions in college and hadn't really thought about that, and it's been really a pleasant full circle to come back and find myself doing aerospace. It wasn't really what the road I set out on, but it's really cool to come back to it.

Jeff Moore:
The closest I think I got was strapping little Army men onto a bottle rocket and then shooting them up. That didn't work out well for the little Army men. Well, thank you guys so much. What a great conversation this has been. Just learning more about what you do, and we continue to be amazed at the progress you make, and the difference you're making in innovation that's
coming out of that part of the state, and Ozark I see especially, so thank you Matt, and thank you Jim for your time, and just wish you guys the best as you move forward and continue to innovate in that space, and the space of energy and exploration and other things.

Matt Francis:
Thank you, it's our pleasure. We really enjoyed talking with you today.

Jim Holmes: Yeah, thank you.

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