Start-Up’s Profile: Contour Semiconductor

In non-volatile memory challenging NAND flash market
This is a Press Release edited by on 2014.04.28

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Contour Semiconductor, Inc.

North Billerica, MA

Year founded

Financial funding
Received $3.9 million in December 2007, $16 million on March 2008 and $8 million one year later, investors being Fairhaven Capital Partners, American Capital, Still River Funds, Eastward Capital Partners and private investors.

Founder and main executives

  • Saul Zales, CEO since January 2014 replacing Steven Grossman, was previously founder and MD at Zales & Associates, EVP, corporate business development/strategic consultant for Fusion-io, VP and GM, corporate development, Numonyx, and director, flash memory business development, Intel, a company where he worked from 1984 to 2008.
  • Dan Shepard, founder and CTO, began developing the Contour technology in the mid-1990s and formed the company in 2000. He worked formerly at Glimpse Waters, Inc., H&L Instruments, LLC, and Wellington Management. 39 patents issued and a dozen pending. He competed in the Luge World Cup and the Masters U.S. National Championships that he won in 1994.

Number of employees
Probably around 20

Low cost, high capacity, non-volatile memory addressing NAND flash market

Products description
Patented Diode Transistor Memory or DTM was invented by Shepard with simplified semiconductor fabrication process. This architecture reduces the number of mask and process steps by as much as 65% compared to NAND flash memory, according to the company adding that this results are about a three-fold improvement in capacity for the fab with a corresponding 65% reduction in wafer cost compared to NAND.

Contour explains that its non-volatile memory cell is a 4F² self-aligned structure that uses a vertical epitaxial diode as the select device.

Currently, DTM uses a phase-change material storage element.

In addition to the memory cell, the streamlined fabrication process also includes a single type of n-channel transistor and non-memory diodes used for address decoding.

Proprietary circuit techniques have been designed to optimize compatibility with existing CMOS processes.

With its cross-point array architecture, Contour's NAND-alternative solutions support word, sector, and page-level erase commands to supplement the normal NAND flash specification, allowing improvement to system-level performance.

Latency, supposed to be like RAM, is minimized as the chip can directly access and modify any addressable location.

With phase-change material, individual cell program and erase performance is improved and write endurance has been tested for up to one billion cycles, stated Contour.

DTM offers improved write, improved write endurance, RAM-like latency and word/sector/page erase block granularity supposedly at low cost.

Future iterations of DTM could include magnetic or carbon nanotube storage elements.

For storage applications, such as digital photographs, movies, music, and data files, the product is suited for environments ranging from entry-level storage, the emerging Internet of Things and wearable devices to high-capacity high-performance enterprise SSDs and all non-volatile memory applications in between.

Target market
NAND flash chip

NAND flash chip manufacturers Micron, Samsung, Toshiba/SanDisk, SK Hynix, Powerchip and several firms in phase-change memory development (see our comment.)

Our Comments

It's the dream of many inventors since decades to find a new technology able to replace or to take a place in the enormous market of storage components, being magnetic, optical or silicon based.

Here the new technology is based on phase-change memory (PCM) that exploits the unique behavior of chalcogenide glass and was first explored by Stanford R. Ovshinsky of Energy Conversion Devices in the 1960s. It was even applied to microfiche.

Several other companies worked on PCM to challenge flash chips with better writing speed, stability and endurance. They include BAE Systems, IBM, Intel with STM Microelectronics, Micron, Nanochip with Ovonyx, Numonyx, SAFC Hitech, Samsung. Up to now, no one succeeds to develop a mass market.

Contour will have to prove its new DTM technology have a better future.