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50 Innovative Companies to Watch 2021

Providing State-of-the-Art Gas Flow Monitoring and Process Control Technology for the Global Semiconductor Market and Beyond: Pivotal Systems

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“We have found that if you work with technology leaders like Samsung, you can add value to all manufacturers in the future.”

Pivotal Systems provides the best-in-class gas flow monitoring and control technology platform for the global semiconductor industry. The company's proprietary hardware and software utilizes advanced machine learning to enable preventative diagnostic capability, resulting in a magnitude increase in fab productivity and capital efficiency for existing and future technology nodes.

Pivotal Systems is headquartered in Fremont, California.

Interview Excerpt: John Hoffman, CEO of Pivotal Systems

Driving Radical Innovation

Pivotal Systems is primarily focused on the semiconductor flow control market (valued at over $1 billion USD), providing new products. It has introduced nanotechnology and machine learning into an area where the latest meaningful innovation occurred decades ago. The company’s revolutionary “positional valve control” is able to detect gas pressure changes, temperature changes, and maintain position control to the nanometer level (less than 1/100th of a human hair). Pivotal is able to do this in less than a thousandth of a second of more that 10x faster than any competitor.

“Our unique technology enables our product to operate both 10 times faster than our leading Japanese competitor while providing 10 times better flow accuracy.”

Moreover, Pivotal is uniquely able to provide real-time flow measurement to a primary reference standard and its products never require “calibration”. This enables the process tool to reduce unnecessary offline time for service.

Pivotal’s advanced flow control technology is brought to market via two distinct channels.  First, the company works with leading semiconductor manufacturers to integrate its product roadmap with their manufacturing roadmap. Generally, this roadmap is based on a three-year vision and encompasses new semiconductor manufacturing gas flow requirements well ahead of their production requirements.

“We have found that if you work with technology leaders like Samsung, you can add value to all manufacturers in the future.”

At the same time, Pivotal works with the top three multi-billion-dollar semiconductor manufacturing process tool providers to understand both their short term as well as long term pain points.  “This ensures that we are able to not only plan well for the future but also be quite reactive to address ongoing industry issues quickly and in a meaningful way.”

Pivotal Systems clients include the leading multi-billion-dollar semiconductor manufacturers from around the world. These may include companies like Samsung, SK Hynix, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or TSMC, Texas Instruments, Micron Technology, Global Foundries, and many others.  Simultaneously, Pivotal partners and sells to the leading semiconductor manufacturers such as Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron, and Lam Research.

“Over the past 12-18 months, the global equipment companies have begun to work directly with Pivotal’s top scientists and engineers in developing custom applications of our core technology to provide unique flow control schemes that enable a potential competitive advantage to each equipment company. This is the type of environment that we had in our vision when Pivotal Systems was formed.”

Staying at the Forefront of Technological Innovations

Pivotal leadership decided long ago that the key to innovation in the company’s part of a $4 billion USD market is to build a revolutionary hardware platform that can handle all known future requirements by leveraging proprietary software. This strategic decision, when combined with working with Industry leaders, allows Pivotal’s core scientists and engineers to stay focused on the future vs. the tyranny of the present. In other words, if you can stay ahead of the day-to-day problem solving by providing robust hardware products that are highly differentiated and meet your specifications, you can be free to continue to innovate. It’s when your solutions do not meet specifications or the customers’ needs to increase the specifications and your hardware is not robust—you run into trouble. Pivotal has been extremely fortunate that the technology leaders have provided us with strong leadership and guidance over the years.

At the same time, Pivotal uses this same approach with its strategic supply chain. For example, in 2018, the company recognized that the industry would require a much higher temperature operating regime in gas flow control. “We, working with key suppliers, were able to introduce piezoelectric actuator that was cable of operating at these high temperatures. This enabled us to provide a solution to a meaningful problem well ahead of our competitors.”

Currently, Pivotal Systems continues to ramp its manufacturing and supply chain to meet a very large semiconductor industry ramp. This ramp is expected to last for the foreseeable future as semiconductor demand during the COVID-19 period has increased significantly. Working-from-home has required significant spending on personal computing, network switching and broadband as well as datacenter upgrades. “We are also seeing strong semiconductor growth in medical diagnostics, AI and education.”

Since the semiconductor industry is facing ever growing demand and increased manufacturing capacity, Pivotal plays a key role in adding capacity and providing advanced technology to meet this growing global need.

Future Arrangements

Pivotal is uniquely able to “transform” itself to meet market requirements as they unfold. “As we grow our business in China, Japan, and Taiwan, we use our proven model in Korea as a baseline.  That said, we believe that the best way to behave in any geographic region is to behave like a local in terms of our sales and service support while always bringing the most advanced technology to our customers.” 

Pivotal has been entering new geographic markets since its 2018 IPO and expects this to continue.

The Leader Upfront

John Hoffman serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Pivotal Systems. Prior to joining Pivotal Systems, John was a senior VP with Spencer Trask Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm. While at Spencer Trask, John was primarily involved in the solar and integrated circuit efforts of the firm. Before Spencer Trask, John was the CEO of RagingWire Enterprise Solutions, an Inc. 500 fastest-growing private company. He reorganized the company and enabled record growth in revenue and profitability during his tenure. John has also been an officer at Applied Materials for 18 years and ran several of their largest business groups.

Mr. Hoffman was the president of the billion-dollar "Etch Product Business Group," VP and GM of the Process Control and Diagnostic Business Group, and the GM of the customer service division, which grew by over 300 percent during his tenure. He has a B.S. from the United States Military Academy at West Point and an Executive MBA (AEA) from Stanford University. He currently serves on several boards of directors and advisory boards.

"Our revolutionary ‘positional valve control’ can detect gas pressure changes, temperature changes, and maintain position control to the nanometer level (less than 1/100th of a human hair)."