Interview with Colin Hunt from Akoustis

  • Colin Hunt - Vice President of Global Sales, Akoustis

everything RF recently interviewed Colin HuntVice President of Global Sales at Akoustis. Colin Hunt brings over 25 years of experience in sales management and business development in the RF and electronics industry. Prior to joining, Colin was Vice President of Worldwide Sales for pSemi, the semi-conductor division of MuRata. 

Q. Can you give us some information about Akoustis? When was the company started and what was its objective?

Colin Hunt: Akoustis, Inc. was founded in 2014 with the idea to become a prominent, independent design and manufacturer of bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filters targeting the multi-billion 5G mobile & infrastructure, Wi-Fi Access Points (AP), and Defense markets. Akoustis acquired a fab in 2017 and completed the process qualification and commercial ramp of our XBAW technology in 2020. The XBAW technology is a MEMS-based flow that utilizes high purity piezoelectric to provide best-in-class BAW filters solutions from 2 to 7GHz.

Q. What type of Products does Akoustis develop?

Colin Hunt: Akoustis primarily develops discrete and multiplexer BAW filters and provides BAW foundry services utilizing its unique and proprietary XBAW process. The Company is also leveraging its majority ownership in RFMi to provide SAW filters and Xtal products that target the timing control market.

Q. What market segments do you cater to? Which is the largest segment for you?

Colin Hunt: As mentioned above, the primary markets we are servicing today are 5G mobile & infrastructure focusing on small cell, Wi-Fi AP, automotive, timing control and defense markets.

The major market fueling the demand is the new WiFi standards including WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E, where the key requirement is to support the co-existence of 5GHz and 6GHz bands.

The largest market by volume and revenue is the 5G mobile market given the massive number of smartphones and other mobile devices that are sold each year and the expansion of new frequencies in these new phones between 2-7 GHz, which is being driven by 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6E.

Q. Can you tell us more about XBAW Technology? What made you decide to develop products using this technology?

Colin Hunt: XBAW is a differentiated, disruptive bulk acoustic wave (BAW) technology that uses high purity piezoelectric material, coupled with a high k2 t mechanical coupling. Our XBAW technology uses Akoustis' patented MEMS-based technology to optimize selective connectivity in the 5G and WiFi 6E space. Producing this technology in Akoustis's “state of the art” MEMS-based process enables superior performance in terms of Q, power handling, and wide bandwidth in a small, lightweight package.

Initially, we took around five years to develop and refine this unique XBAW process, before commercially releasing products to the market, which commenced around two years ago.

The reason Akoustis decided to develop the XBAW process was driven by the passion of our founders, Dr. Jeffery Shealy and Dr. Steve Denbaars, who wanted to build on their previous experience of developing unique crystal structures gained in developing GaN technology. In addition, the “time was right” given the economic conditions.

The market required higher frequencies with better selectivity for use in the RF and mobile front end space and there was a lack of companies (just 2) supporting this need.

Akoustis strives to be the “best of the best” in technology and support, which has subsequently been appreciated by our end customers, which in turn is fueling revenue growth for the company.

Akoustis is now seen as the technology leader in the development of BAW filters.

Q. Is there a particular frequency range for which you develop products? Do you see this changing over the next few years? Up to what frequency can XBAW technology be used?

Colin Hunt: Akoustis has primarily targeted filters in the range of 2 GHz to 7 GHz. However, in the near future, we do have customers requesting XBAW, to support higher frequencies up to and beyond X-band. Recently, we were awarded a new contract from DARPA on a program that will work to drive our XBAW technology to 18 GHz and above, when complete.

Q. What are the main filtering challenges that engineers face when designing WiFi 6E and 5G products? How does your coexistence BAW Filters help them?

Colin Hunt: There are several key challenges for both Wi-Fi 6E and 5G products, these include:

  • Insertion loss – this needs to be as low as possible to conserve battery charge, improve receive sensitivity and reduce thermals
  • Rejection – needs to be as high as possible to eliminate unwanted signals and enable the isolation budget from transceiver to antenna
  • Transition Window (Q factor) – as co-existence frequencies are getting closer, then the transition windows are getting narrower. This means the transition window, from pass to reject, is also getting very narrow. For example in the Wi-Fi 6E arena, the co-existence filters passing UNII1-4 and rejecting UNII 5-8, need to have this transition in just 50MHz.

XBAW is the only filter on the market that enable these very high Q filters to support this transition window

  • Size – Size is becoming more critical. An application example is WI-FI multiple-in- multiple-out (MIMO) requirements for the latest access points, which are driving towards 4x 5GHz radios and 4x 6GHz radios, without growing real-estate of the PCB.
  • Weight – the XBAW is a passive device developed using a semiconductor process. The part can therefore be packaged in both conventional and chip-scale packaging (CSP), resulting in lightweight and incredibly small form factors. This is a key concern for multi-user (MU)-MIMO applications in small cell and base station applications, where 8x8 (64-patch) antenna arrays are becoming standard.

Each of these patch antennas requires high Q filtering and yet the base station companies need to ensure that their end equipment can be installed by an engineer using a set of ladders. Weight is also a key factor!

Q. Akoustis has developed filters for the 3.6 GHz Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS). Is this an important segment for Akoustis? What made you develop filters for this segment?

Colin Hunt: Yes the tough requirements of supporting the CBRS frequency of 3.6 GHz, whilst rejecting signals just 20MHz away from the passband is right in Akoustis’ XBAW sweet spot.

Q. Where do you manufacture your filter products? Can you tell us about your manufacturing facility? What is its capacity? How will it scale?

Colin Hunt: Akoustis manufactures our 6” wafers in our own 120,000 square foot facility in Canandaigua, New York,

We are very proud of having a stellar US fabrication plant, with brilliant personnel that enables Akoustis to continue to push the boundaries of BAW technology.

The facility sits on a 57-acre site and allows Akoustis to scale to more than 3-5 billion filters to meet future market demands.

Recently, Akoustis has doubled its initial production capacity to ~500 million per year fuelled by customer demand. Akoustis’ next step is to move to 24/7 shifts, which will allow further near-term expansion.

Akoustis is further supported by a number of Tier-1 offshore assembly and test (OSAT) providers that perform the back-end functions, such as packaging, final test, and placing into tape & reel.

Q. Can you tell us about your sales channels? How do customers buy your filter products? Are they integrated into larger modules or are they sold as chips / packaged devices?

Colin Hunt: We are designing multiple standard and custom filters and multiplexers that can be integrated into customer devices as discrete packaged products, or can be integrated directly into a module from tape-and-reel. Our BAW products are supported by several distributors.

Our catalog XBAW products are available for sale through our extended sales network of distributors and representatives or directly to a customer.

Akoustis has signed numerous distributors, who can support either globally or locally in their respective regions.

Akoustis’ global partner is RFMW, whilst we do have a number of local distributors to support specific regions in the market.

Click here to see Akoustis' full sales network, including representatives and distributors.

Q. Do you develop catalog or custom filter products?

Colin Hunt: Akoustis have a range of custom and catalog products, aimed at the Wi-Fi, 5G infrastructure small cell, defense markets and other markets.

We also support custom designs that target the higher volume markets, engaging customers who have been challenged by critical filtering requirements.

Q. How has the company grown over the last few years in terms of revenue, customers, and product portfolio? Can you give some details?

Colin Hunt: Akoustis has been operating as a start-up company, with our first product offerings released to markets a little over two years ago.

Supply chain shortages driven by Covid-19 caused a number of delays in calendar 2021, especially in the Wi-Fi 6 market. Fortunately, WiFi 6E has emerged as a new market with additional frequency demands between 5.9 GHz and 7.1 GHz, and we have experienced rapid design win success in that market. We grew our customer roster from one to five at the end of calendar 2021, and have announced over a dozen design wins that are expected to ramp revenue in the current calendar year.

Out revenue nearly doubled quarter-over-quarter in December from $1.9 million to $3.7 million. We expect revenue to increase every quarter moving forward as we layer in new design wins.

Additionally, we recently acquired majority ownership of RFMi, creating new, synergistic sales channels and numerous market-leading customers providing significant cross-selling opportunities for Akoustis XBAW technology.

Q. Has the semiconductor chip shortage impacted sales or growth?

Colin Hunt: There has been very little impact on the supply of our Akoustis BAW filters. Owning our fabrication plant allows us to model the forecasted demand and hence plan the necessary raw material accordingly.

However, Akoustis has not been immune to the chip shortages, given the long lead times for some of the Wi-Fi transceiver chips. This has impacted the ability of our end customers to produce as many “boxes” as expected, which then flows down to all suppliers that are designed into that “box”.

Q. What is your roadmap for the next 3 years?

Colin Hunt: Whilst Akoustis’ product roadmap is company confidential, at a high level, the main intent is to conquer the difficult challenges faced by our customers by building on XBAW differentiating factors:

  • Higher Q, resulting in improved insertion loss and rejection for difficult coexistence requirements
  • Higher power handling
  • Smaller size
  • Reduced weight
  • Higher levels of integration

Click here to learn more about XBAW Technology.

About Colin Hunt

Colin Hunt brings over 25 years of experience in sales management and business development in the RF and electronics industry. Prior to joining, Colin was Vice President of Worldwide Sales for pSemi, the semi-conductor division of MuRata. Responsible for all markets outside of mobile, he led the global sales network promoting and growing sales to the market leading companies in the Wireless Infrastructure, Wireless Broadband, Defence, Test & Measurement sectors. Colin also gained experience in various sales and business positions for both semiconductors and passive components companies. He held sales and business development management positions for the European and UK sales team at RFMD (now Qorvo); NDK and Murata. Colin holds an HNC in avionics, gained in the Royal Air Force (United Kingdom), where he specialized in air radar; RF communications and flight systems on helicopter aircraft.