Transphorm Targets Data Center Power Losses

Data center operators have spent years working on ways to reduce energy losses during power conversions as electricity makes its way from the utility grid to the servers. Stealthy startup Transphorm is attacking this problem, with backing from Google Ventures.

John Rath

February 24, 2011

3 Min Read
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Data center operators have spent years working on ways to reduce energy losses during power conversions as electricity makes its way from the utility grid to the servers. It's a quest that has driven the development of leading "green" metrics and prompted Google and Facebook to retool their entire power distribution systems. Now there's a new player targeting this tough and expensive problem.

At Google Venture's headquarters in Silicon Valley Wednesday stealth company Transphorm made its formal debut, touting an energy-efficient power conversion module for power-hungry devices from servers to electric car batteries to solar panels. Transphorm is aiming its cleantech startup product at power supply equipment makers that sell their wares to data centers.

Power Conversion and Gallium Nitride

Southern California-based Transphorm was founded in 2007 and backed with $38 million in venture capital from Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Foundation Capital, and Lux Capital. They have developed a power conversion module that they say will cut energy waste by 90 percent.  The initial investment was intended for Transphorm to develop a new type of power conversion module based on gallium nitride, a compound used in LEDs. “The opportunity is to take 300 coal plants off grid effectively, said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins.

On Wednesday Transphorm announced a $20 million C round of funding, with Google Ventures as the lead investor.  "One of the things that attracts us to Transphorm is we understand the problem of wasted power," said Bill Baris, managing partner of Google Ventures.  "It's not good for our shareholders, our data centers and our world."

In most data centers, a large centralized UPS system stands between the utility power grid and the servers. When there is a grid outage, the UPS taps a large bank of batteries (or in some cases, a flywheel) for “ride-through” power until the generator can be started. The AC power from the grid is converted into DC power to charge the batteries, and then converted back to AC for the equipment, with each conversion resulting in small power losses.

The need to measure andr educe these power losses led to the development of Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), a metric championed by The Green Grid that has become the leading gauge of energy efficiency in data centers.

Present day power converters rely on silicon, which has reached its limit to improve conversion efficiencies, where gallium nitride is better at preventing leaks by holding onto the maximum voltage when it's not delivering power.  "Transphorm's first product will be in the 600-volt range and suitable for industrial operations such as data centers, solar panels and automotive drives," said Primit Parikh, president of Transphorm.

Transphorm Used in Google Data Centers?

Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures said "it’s too early to say whether Transphorm’s modules will eventually find a home at any of Google’s server farms. Google could certainly provide Transphorm’s technology department ample opportunity to test its products, but that hasn’t happened yet." Transphorm has Japanese manufacturer Yaskawa Electric and solar inverter maker Satcon signed up and will introduce its first products later this year.

Despite the excitement over its mission and approach, Transphorm face many hurdles before it brings a product to market, as noted by Greentech Enterprise.

"Getting a new type of semiconductor to market is never easy," it notes. "In fact, it is one of the most difficult tasks in the technology business. ... Transphorm's chips depend on materials, processes, circuits and a module that are unique to the company. Transphorm plans to build a factory to make its own chips. It will not be able to rely on third party foundries for some time."

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