Hong Kong sapphire coating start-up targets expanded use in foldable phones, seeks US$1.5 million in funding

Georgina Lee

Hong Kong start-up Cathay Photonics, which has patented technology for the application of scratch proof sapphire on glass and plastic, is targeting US$1.5 million in pre-series A financing from international investors as it targets expanded use in foldable phones and other devices.

“The sapphire film helps to protect the plastic screens of foldable phones so they won’t be easily scratched, or wear out, when you fold and unfold the phone,” said Cheah Kok Wai, the company’s co-founder and chief executive. “Sapphire coating extends the lifespan of the device and increases its durability.”

Cheah, who is also the former head of Baptist University’s department of physics, said the 10 people company hoped to use the venture capital raised for workforce and laboratory expansion. One of the options it was exploring was diversifying part of its operations to the Greater Bay Area, which encompasses Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in mainland China’s Guangdong province.

Cathay Photonics intends to stay a research and development-focused company. It licenses its technology to other original equipment manufacturers, provides testing and offers advice on engineering design and final manufacturing.

The funding round coincides with an agreement signed between Cathay Photonics and the Hong Kong unit of Japanese chemical and plastic group Nagase, licensing the use of the former’s technology for coating foldable phone screens with thin sapphire in mass production. A second agreement has been signed for trying out watch glass coating in mass production.

Cathay Photonics, established in 2014 with government funding, is also backed by Hong Kong firm Radiant Venture Capital, which joined the company in 2015 as an angel investor.

Sapphire is the world’s second hardest mineral after diamonds, and previous attempts by manufacturers have failed to address its high brittleness and weight.

Cheah Kok Wai, Cathay Photonics’ co-founder and chief executive. Photo: Handout

But Cheah said Cathay Photonics’ technology addresses these constraints, and the company has filed a number of patents for its scratch proof thin film in the United States. The technology can be used to coat glass in electronic devices, watches and camera lenses, among other products.

The company has conducted tests and has reached a goal of more than 200,000 folds per film. Cheah said the technology could be used in second-generation foldable devices, slated for commercialisation during the second half of 2020. These models will follow a first generation of foldable phones, such as Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X, which are slated for launch this year.

“We anticipate that China and South Korea are the two markets where foldable phones will take off,” said Cheah, adding that thin sapphire film on plastics was the technology use case closest to being commercialised.

With the new funding, the company hopes to expand its laboratory to accommodate more staff. Cathay Photonics is currently considering either the Science Park in Hong Kong, or a location in the Greater Bay Area.

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“There are a lot of logistical advantages to being located in the Greater Bay Area. If our operations and testing are conducted within the area, we are likely to benefit from shorter transit times for moving products and parts to and from our partner manufacturers, as a lot of their operations are already done within China,” Cheah said.

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