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Advances in nanotechnology through UW-Madison research

SixLine Semiconductor could lead the way toward the next generation of wireless electronics

Katy Jinkins, SixLine

SixLine co-founder and CEO Katy Jinkins.

SixLine Semiconductor, a Middleton startup whose product could someday improve the speed and battery life of your cell phone, won the grand prize in the 20th annual Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

SixLine wants to shake up the semiconductor industry by using carbon nanotubes—50,000 times thinner than a human hair—to replace the material currently used in wireless communication device chips. The result would be improved performance at about half the current manufacturing cost, says SixLine co-founder and CEO Katy Jinkins. Future semiconducting materials like carbon nanotubes will also be needed to deliver higher performance in order to meet the needs of artificial intelligence, data analytics, and machine learning.

SixLine’s technology is the result of more than eight years of research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—research that’s still continuing, Jinkins says. “Winning the contest is a testament to how much progress we’ve made on this technology already,” she says.

Like microscopic chicken wire

The key to SixLine’s technology is the ability to position the carbon nanotubes used for semiconductor electronics so they are aligned uniformly and packed closely together.

That isn’t easy. Jinkins says SixLine addresses challenges that have been well known since the discovery of carbon nanotubes in the early 1990s: The process had to eliminate metallic impurities, and the minuscule nanotubes are difficult to align simply because they are so small.

Carbon nanotubes are made up of a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal (six-sided) lattice that “looks like a sheet of chicken wire”; the sheet is then rolled into seamless cylinders, Jinkins says.

The aligned nanotubes have a powerful ability to transport electrical charges and are mechanically resilient in rugged environments, she says. They are also less expensive to manufacture than gallium arsenide—the chemical compound commonly used in wireless devices today—and can be produced at lower temperatures. Their superior qualities will help enable 6G (sixth-generation) cellular communication that will increase download speeds, reduce delays in connectivity, and decrease congestion on networks in crowded areas, Jinkins says.

SixLine is targeting wireless telecommunication products, such as cell phones and laptops, to start. Eventually, the company’s technology could also be used for products such as biosensors that can detect diseases in your blood or saliva, or sensors used in food safety.

Rural background

Jinkins grew up in Rewey, about 20 minutes from Platteville, on a farm that has been in her family since 1848. But it was engineering, rather than farming, that played a prominent role in her life. Jinkins’ mother was a professor in industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and her father was a systems engineer at Rockwell Collins—now Collins Aerospace—in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

During her high school years, a weekend research workshop in a UW-Platteville lab that made coin cell batteries hooked Jinkins on the study of nanomaterials, and she earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering physics at the Platteville campus, with a minor in microsystems and nanotechnology. “I was really fascinated by the field. It’s a powerful area to study—materials and atoms make up everything,” Jinkins says.

Technology advances

At UW-Madison, Jinkins’ doctoral thesis focused on developing techniques to align carbon nanotubes in a way that could be scaled up for mass production, based on her work in the lab of Beckwith-Bascom Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Michael Arnold, SixLine’s co-founder and chief technical advisor.

The company’s name comes from the hexagonal shape of the nanotube atomic structure and carbon’s place as the sixth element in the periodic table, and also highlights the fact that the nanotubes are aligned.

Incorporated in September 2022, SixLine Semiconductor is still in the early development stage. One of its current priorities is to secure funding to boost research and move into its own offices and labs—but already, the company is producing samples for two “major semiconductor companies” to evaluate, Jinkins says.

“It’s a good sign for our momentum,” she says. “We’ve just formed (as a company) and we’re getting real interest from the industry, which is a validation of the promise of carbon nanotubes.” Jinkins says she is hoping SixLine’s carbon nanotubes will be integrated into electronic products within five years. The company’s technology is protected by eight patents issued through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and two more patent applications have been submitted.

State boost

SixLine already is a Qualified New Business Venture, a WEDC certification that assists early-stage companies in obtaining capital by making investors in certified companies eligible for tax credits.

In addition to winning the grand prize, SixLine won in the advanced manufacturing category in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

Jinkins says participating in the competition has been a big help. “The feedback from the judges was incredibly valuable. It helped guide how we are moving forward with our company,” she says. “We have made some connections with potential investors, and we’ve been able to raise awareness for our nanotube technology and the exceptional research and development going on in Wisconsin.”

Growing entrepreneurship

The Governor’s Business Plan Contest is produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council, and WEDC is a major sponsor.

Three rounds of judging narrowed the applicants to the top 13. “The contest is a great way for our state to encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, and there are some really exceptional, innovative ideas here,” said WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes.

In addition to SixLine’s awards, the winning startups in the other categories are:

  • Business services: WorkShift (West Allis), a software platform for gig employment in the restaurant/hospitality industry
  • Information technology: IQDecide (Madison), software that uses artificial intelligence to help cancer patients determine the treatment most appropriate for them
  • Life sciences: Soul Mobility (Oconomowoc), whose Power-Flex device quickly transforms a manual wheelchair into a power wheelchair
  • Bright new idea: Chocolate Rescue for Dogs (Germantown), with an antidote to the toxic effect of chocolate on dogs

Winners were announced June 1 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, presented by the Wisconsin Technology Council, in Milwaukee.

“You are building a better Wisconsin, and we can’t wait to see what you do next,” Hughes told the entrepreneurs.

About the category winners