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[Korean Startup Interview] OS : A Korean Startup’s Atomic Layer Revolution in the Global Semiconductor Industry

2024-03-22 7 min read


[Korean Startup Interview] OS : A Korean Startup’s Atomic Layer Revolution in the Global Semiconductor Industry

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In today’s industry, and even more so in the industries of the future dominated by semiconductors, the ability to make semiconductor chips more delicate and precise holds significant importance. The quest to pack more circuits onto smaller chips has led to semiconductor electrodes and line widths shrinking to unimaginably small sizes. Achieving such precision, fineness, and the potential for ultra-high integration requires semiconductor equipment to incorporate increasingly accurate technologies.

The global semiconductor equipment market, valued at over KRW 100 trillion annually, is largely dominated by international corporations like Applied Materials, LAM RESEARCH, and Tokyo Electron (TEL). Additionally, the market for components and modules at the base of the semiconductor equipment chain is also substantial, exceeding KRW 10 trillion, representing a promising opportunity for Korean companies. OS Corporation (OS), an ambitious Korean startup, is challenging these global giants with its expertise in atomic layer processes (deposition, etching).

Producing semiconductors with electrode widths of just a few nanometers demands sophisticated technology. This process involves precisely drawing circuits using EUV equipment, accurately etching them with RIE (Reactive Ion Etching) technology, depositing layers of silicon oxide, and repeatedly drawing, etching, and depositing circuits. OS seeks to break into the foreign-dominated semiconductor market by facilitating deposition and etching processes at the atomic layer level.

While atomic layer technology, and particularly atomic layer etching technology, has been established for some time, it hasn’t been widely adopted in mass production due to the lengthy processing times. OS is introducing innovative concepts such as plasma methods, high-speed heat sources, and gas control technology to develop a foundational technology that enables atomic layer etching much more rapidly, preparing it for mass production.

Eung-gu Lee, CEO of OS, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and a Ph.D. in new materials engineering, has previously experienced two successful exits while working at a technology development company. This experience highlighted for him the critical importance of mass production technology, prompting him to establish OS with the goal of achieving mass production of semiconductor equipment. With a team boasting an average of over 15 years of experience in process technology, design, production, and electrical/software technology in the semiconductor equipment sector, OS is now initiating investment rounds to fund research and development as well as mass production. The aim is to enhance OS’s core technology and bring its vision to fruition through a KRW 3 billion pre-Series A funding round.

CEO Eung-gu Lee remarked, “As a startup in the semiconductor equipment sector, there’s much growth ahead of us. Atomic layer technology is crucial in the modern industry, and our team at OS possesses deep expertise in this area. We are committed to addressing the productivity challenges that hinder the adoption of atomic layer processes, both swiftly and accurately. We are seeking investments to advance technologies that will be applicable in semiconductor equipment and the broader market, with the goal of evolving into a Korean company capable of competing with global equipment manufacturers.”

What problem is OS attempting to solve?

In various semiconductor fields, including system and memory semiconductors, there is fierce competition in technological development aimed at increasing integration and reducing the size of electrodes. Currently, the width of electrodes is narrowing to a few nanometers (nm). Moreover, the process of semiconductor manufacturing involves not just creating circuits with nanometer-level electrode widths once but building upon these circuits by depositing materials such as silicon oxide and then constructing additional circuits on top. Therefore, it is necessary to repeat the process of etching the circuit boards, which have been intricately designed using EUV equipment, and depositing layers on them. However, the extreme fineness of this process makes precise work challenging.

To address this, advancements in atomic layer technology, which allows for deposition and etching at the atomic layer level, have been made. However, particularly with etching, there is still a lack of mass production technology, and there is a need for productivity improvements.

How does OS propose to solve this problem?

OS is developing proprietary technology based on a new equipment concept and is commercializing atomic layer equipment technology that offers improved productivity over existing methods and can be utilized in mass production.

The concept of atomic layer technology was established long ago and has seen considerable development. However, its application in actual semiconductor manufacturing processes has been limited due to its slow speed, which fails to meet productivity standards. While recent improvements in uniformity, precision, and thin-film characteristics have led to its application in certain processes, the persisting issue of slow productivity necessitates further research and development.

OS possesses and continues to develop plasma technology, high-speed heat source technology, and gas control technology essential for the atomic layer process. By addressing the existing issues, OS is developing economical equipment that ensures productivity.

What competitive advantages and technological strengths does OS have over its competitors?

Previous technologies attempted to resolve the issue of slowness through mechanical means. However, these methods come with the disadvantage of requiring the transportation of wafers in a vacuum. Not only has this failed to address the problem of excessive time consumption, but OS is also overcoming this challenge by leveraging plasma technology and its proprietary high-speed heat source.

The atomic layer process involves depositing or etching one atomic layer at a time, requiring multiple iterations to achieve the desired outcome. However, this process entails repeated heating and cooling, consuming significant time and making it challenging to meet productivity objectives.

As a result, in the field of actual atomic layer etching (ALE, Atomic Layer Etching), even global equipment companies have not managed to apply it in mass production. This includes companies like Applied Materials, LAM Research, and TEL. OS is resolving this issue by synthesizing its revolutionary high-speed heat source technology with plasma technology.

What products/services does OS offer, and what is the current status?

Semiconductor equipment can be categorized into research, validation, and production types. Until recently, OS has been focusing on developing unit technologies for research equipment and has successfully completed deliveries to the Korea Institure of Industrial Technology (KITECH) and the Korea Institute of Energy Research. We are currently in discussions with several labs at Sungkyunkwan University‘s Graduate School. Going forward, we plan to develop equipment capable of handling 8-inch wafers or larger in the validation sector. This step aims to confirm the feasibility of our technology at the production level and to proceed with validating it with our clients.

Subsequently, we intend to further accelerate our technology development to make an entrance into the mass production market. Notably, global conglomerates have recognized the potential in OS and are in discussions about specific collaborations.

How large is the market OS is targeting, and who are the core target customers?

The semiconductor equipment market is valued at over KRW 100 trillion annually, dominated almost entirely by global equipment firms like Applied Materials, LAM Research, and TEL, as previously mentioned. The equipment market can be further segmented into the components or modules market, which itself is valued at over KRW 10 trillion.

OS’s ultimate goal is to penetrate the equipment production market. However, our initial strategy involves entering the market through the modularization of our technology to establish our technical expertise. Our primary clientele includes comprehensive semiconductor companies and semiconductor equipment manufacturers.

What is OS’s business model?

Our business model centers on the manufacture and sale of atomic layer processing (deposition, etching) equipment. However, we are not only focused on selling our proprietary equipment; we are also exploring the application of OS’s core technologies in the equipment of established global manufacturers. In addition, we are in the process of developing equipment that utilizes atomic layer technology or derivatives in the form of modules or other technologies.

What achievements has OS made so far?

Since its founding in 2019, OS has achieved sales of KRW 824 million in 2022. Our cumulative delivery record includes 20 pieces of semiconductor equipment and parts. In 2022, we were selected for the Startup Growth R&D Project (Strategic) and recognized as an excellent startup team by Haedong Startup Junior (Seoul National University). We were also chosen for the Korea University Campus Town Support Project and as part of the 13th class of the Youth Startup Academy. Currently, we are supplying research equipment to major domestic companies such as Company L and Company S. Following a seed investment of KRW 500 million in 2023, we were selected for TIPS. That same year, we were also chosen for the Credit Guarantee Fund’s Innovation Startup Growth Support Program Step-Up Guarantee, receiving KRW 1 billion. At the end of the last year, we reached the finals of ‘COMEUP 2023 stars 40′ and won the Best Award at KDB Startup 2023.

We are in the process of developing equipment that applies atomic layer technology, which will be delivered to Sungkyunkwan University. We are enhancing this technology to develop equipment that can be validated at the production level. This equipment is scheduled for manufacture in the second half of 2024, and we plan to showcase the results to our clients and pursue sales activities. We are in detailed discussions about potential collaborations with several global semiconductor companies.

What are the core competitive strengths of the OS team?

Our team consists of members who, on average, have over 15 years of experience in semiconductor equipment’s process technology, design, production, and electrical/software (E/SW) technology. Notably, CEO of OS, Eung-gu Lee, has participated as a developer in two equipment company exits (IPO, M&A), equipping him with valuable experience for growing the company. We are committed to developing proprietary products and applying specialized technologies based on this experience. While we cannot share everything in an interview, we are prepared to provide comprehensive explanations to interested investors.

Three reasons why we should receive investment!

Firstly, the technology OS is developing is in the core atomic layer control process within the highly challenging semiconductor front-end process field. This technology, while difficult to master, has the potential to yield significant results upon success. OS is committed to developing technology that will overcome technical barriers in this field.

Secondly, our understanding of this technology surpasses that of others, and we have firsthand experience observing and participating in the IPO or M&A processes of equipment companies. These experiences enable us to offer valuable opportunities to our investors.

Thirdly, global companies have already expressed interest in OS, highlighting our considerable growth potential. Armed with the determination and capability to develop this technology, we are poised for significant growth and expansion.

[Korean Startup Interview]

스타트업 투자의 숨은 말 '다코스'
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