For the past 10 years, a handful of engineers in an obscure pocket of north Waterloo have been quietly working to build a better visual experience for people who use cellphones, TVs, laptops and other screened devices.

This week, all that work paid off for Ignis Innovation Inc., whose technology enables the next-generation displays now sweeping the electronics world – known as OLEDs – to perform optimally. The company announced on Wednesday that it has licensed its technology to Korean-based LG Display, one of the world’s top producers of OLED screens.

While details of the deal were not made public, its significance for Ignis – founded in 2000 and spun off from the University of Waterloo – is hard to overstate, given the massive global market now opening up for OLED displays.

It’s a market that analysts expect to reach $44 billion worldwide by 2020, as electronics makers such as Samsung, Apple and LG move increasingly to OLEDs and away from the LCDs (liquid crystal displays) currently used in most mobile phones, tablets, TVs, smart watches, laptops and other devices.

Samsung, by far the world’s largest OLED producer, is already transitioning its smartphones to OLED, and Apple is rumoured to be dropping LCD and moving to OLED technology for its 2017 iPhone release.

The reason for the technological shift is as clear and vivid as the test screens that light up the Ignis lab on Bathurst Drive in Waterloo: Unlike LCDs , OLEDs emit their own light and don’t need a backlight. That means they can be made ultra-thin – to the point of being flexible, and soon, even foldable – while displaying true blacks and sharper colours, and using less power.

At the same time, OLEDs come with some challenges, and that’s where Ignis comes in.

OLEDs are overlaid on a backplane made of thin-film transistor (TFT) circuits, which send current to the OLED, controlling the brightness of each pixel. But variations in those backplanes – whether from aging or from manufacturing inconsistencies – can lead to irregularities in the current, which appear as “burn-in,” spots, lines or cloudy areas on the screen.

Ignis’s technology, which combines hardware and software, compensates for those problems by continuously analyzing and correcting each pixel in real time, ensuring the viewer sees the image exactly as it was intended.

With more than 300 patents accumulated since its founding, Ignis is well-positioned as virtually the only company to be addressing these problems in this way, making its solution highly attractive to OLED manufacturers.

“While most companies were focusing on improving material, improving the backplane, our approach was, can we solve these issues externally with software algorithms and electronics?” Reza Chaji, Ignis’s President and Chief Technology Officer, said in a recent interview with Communitech News.

“Therefore, we developed some key IP in the field that gives us the advantage over the others, and also the know-how that the team has developed,” Chaji said. “A lot of these [OLED] companies, despite the fact that they have their own facilities, still come to us to help them solve the issues.”

Ignis was founded in 2000 by Arokia Nathan, a then-University of Waterloo professor who is now Chair of Photonic Systems and Displays at Cambridge University in the UK. Nathan had been researching amorphous silicon for use in medical imaging, and found solutions to problems with that material that he believed could be applied to then-emerging OLED technology.

The company has since grown quietly under the radar, and today employs 33 people, though that number is expected to rise as the OLED market continues its rapid growth.

Photo: Reza Chaji (right), President and CTO, and Nino Zahirovic, Director of Engineering: System Design, in Ignis Innovation’s Waterloo lab. 

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.