SemiSouth lands partner in California company

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Ten years ago, sitting at a dining room table, Jeff Casady and Michael Mazzola came up with the seemingly impossible idea of building semiconductor chips in Mississippi.
But Casady and Mazzola, who were Mississippi State University professors involved in silicon carbide, or SiC, research and development were undaunted.
“We like to say we were the first semiconductor company hatched in Sessums, Miss., Casady said with a laugh.
They shared more smiles Friday when the company they founded, SemiSouth Laboratories, signed a partnership with Power Integrations, a San Jose, Calif.-based company in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Power Integrations, a $215 million integrated circuits company, will invest $30 million in SemiSouth to help expand its facilities and open the company to new markets.
The new partnership could mean SemiSouth doubling its employment from its current 74-person work force, said company President and CEO Kenney Roberts.
Power Integrations also is taking an equity stake in the company.
Until Friday, SemiSouth’s biggest private investor had put $5 million into the company. SemiSouth had about $50 million invested, with about $20 million via private investment.
“We’ve been looking for strategic partners and I don’t believe we could have found a better partner than Power Integrations,” Roberts said.
Power Integrations President and CEO Balu Balakrishnan, who holds 120 technology patents of his own, also lavished praise on SemiSouth.
“I have been very impressed with their technology,” he said.
Balakrishnan’s company produces energy-efficient microchips used for power supply devices which convert high voltage to low voltage current for use in electronics.
“They’re used in appliances, refrigerators, TVs, computers – just about anything electronic,” he said. “In fact, we’ve sold 4 billion chips.”
But while Power Integrations handles mostly low-voltage products, SemiSouth makes high-voltage SiC devices. Its products are used for solar and wind inverters, hybrid-electric vehicles and other applications that benefit from high-energy efficiency, including the military and aerospace.
And since both companies are centered on energy efficiency and clean technology, it made sense that the companies work with each other.
“With a mutual focus on energy-efficient high-voltage semiconductor technology, Power Integrations and SemiSouth are natural strategic partners,” Balakrishnan said.
SemiSouth’s SiC chips have found their way into Europe, where most of its customers are. But with this new partnership, the company hopes to make a bigger splash in its home market.
Gov. Haley Barbour, who attended the announcement, declared the SemiSouth-Power Integrations pairing “great news for Mississippi and Mississippi State.”
“This company fits in the sweet spot of economic development,” he said. “We’re focused on the automotive industry, aerospace and energy, and this is a company that fits on the dot of all three.”
For Casady and Mazzola, the new partnership validates their belief that high-tech jobs are viable in Mississippi.
Ten years ago, many scoffed at the idea of some kind of “Southern Silicon Valley” developing, but SemiSouth has caught the attention of far larger competitors.
Now that it’s no longer flying under the radar, bigger markets and opportunities await for SemiSouth.
“Our products are typically less expensive to make and more affordable for customers,” Mazzola said, “and it’s that ‘sweet sauce’ that really makes a difference in our market acceptance.”
Having Power Integrations’ experience and backing, Roberts said the investment “will allow us to quickly expand and serve our customers on a much broader scale.”
Contact Dennis Seid at (601) 353-3119 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.