1. Virginia Diodes (VDI) was founded in 1996, can you give us a brief history of the company and how it has evolved? What metrics can you share with our readers about VDI?
My graduate advisor, CEO and founder, Tom Crowe, started VDI to get THz Schottky diodes, used for mixing and multiplication, to the radio astronomers who needed them. Eventually, our customers asked us to package the diodes into the integrated mmWave assemblies, or components, for better integration into their systems. Then some of the same customers asked us to just build them complete mmWave and THz transmit and receive systems. VDI eventually standardized that mmWave and THz radio technology into test and measurement equipment we manufacture today. 27 years on, we are 115 employees strong with 30k ft.2 of manufacturing space across two facilities in Charlottesville, Va. We have 11 international distributors, sell in more than 40 countries worldwide, and about half of our business is export. We are solution partners with Keysight.
2. In the company's early days, you sold Schottky diodes but now have a much broader product portfolio. Can you describe that current portfolio for our readers?
We are world leaders in mmWave and THz test and measurement systems and we also sell components that are in those systems. VDI does not sell many diodes today, though we still manufacture those parts that are in our name. Most of the semiconductor fabrication is a captive activity. Across our product line, we are very high mix, low volume. We ship many components to a broad cross-section of customers, some of which are commercial customers who use those components in their systems. Our largest business today is with the frequency extension products for VNAs, spectrum analyzers and signal generators. Most affordable VNAs, spectrum analyzers and signal generator top out at 67 to 110 GHz and our products allow extension up to 1.5 THz in the various waveguide bands.
3. The THz frequency range has become popular for applications like 6G, sensing and imaging, but VDI has been involved with THz products for some time now. How are you seeing the THz and sub-THz markets evolving?
VDI’s original customers were radio astronomers and we are still very much engaged with that community. Our mission statement has been and still is “To make the THz region of the electromagnetic spectrum as useful for scientific, military and commercial applications as the microwave and infrared bands are today.” “Today” in that statement is increasingly yesterday. We have created the test products that are enabling the research in the sub-THz element of 6G, advanced automotive radar and other similar applications. Over the past 2 years, the interest in research between 100 and 300 GHz has accelerated, with almost every major university and electronics corporation involved. Our components are also being increasingly used in CubeSat and weather sensing applications.
4. Can you describe the VDI business model? What portion of your development/manufacturing process is done internally versus outsourced? What advantages do you think this model brings to your products?
VDI remains very customer focused. We listen to our customers. That is the business model. Those elements that include mmWave and THz are manufactured internally. As previously mentioned, we continue to manufacture the diodes that are in our name. We are vertically integrated from diode to component to system design. We strategically outsource parts manufactured better by other organizations. Paying attention to the customer and being willing to be on the bleeding edge has its challenges and risks, but the customers keep coming back.
5. How would you describe the corporate culture at VDI?
Relaxed, but professional and disciplined. We are a hardware company and are paid by shipping the world’s best mmWave and THz products. It is work, but our employees seem excited about their jobs. We try to hire employees that do not need to be managed. Our group leaders are technical group leaders; infrequent, detailed employee management rests with the executive team. An example is employees do not need to request paid time off, they just schedule it and we acknowledge when they will be out. We also encourage employee education; we are interested in employees learning more to support VDI’s success and achieving their goals, whatever they may be.
6. Where have you seen the biggest growth over the past couple of years?
There has been a really big surge in spending on the sub-THz (100 to 300 GHz) element of 6G.
7. What future market opportunities excite you the most? What changes do you foresee in the VDI product portfolio in the next few years in response to the growth of your target market opportunities?
VDI has been providing diodes and components for satellite applications for many years. For the past few years, we have seen an increased interest in CubeSats for weather sensing applications and we are engaging on those opportunities. mmWave and THz sensing is already real in this aspect and we think it will continue to grow as joint sensing and communications emerges as a topic for next-generation communications.
8. Charlottesville is a smaller university town, renowned more for its history and natural beauty than as a center of technology. How has your location helped you attract and retain your workforce?
Hiring is challenging, especially since the before times. VDI has been successful on a couple of different fronts. Across the board, VDI needs to train employees to manufacture and test mmWave and THz products. That experience is not in the curriculum of schools today. On the technician front, we generally hire electronics technicians for component assembly, but we have also been successful with other candidates that have good microscopic hand skills, including artisans. For mmWave engineers, our preferred path is hiring a BSEE, but we have also been very successful hiring Physics B.S. graduates. Our corporate culture has minimized turnover, especially at the technician level. Though we are only 27 years young, we have had several employees work to their retirement age.
9. What else should our readers know about VDI?
D-Band is the new E-Band. It’s on the tee shirt. We said it first.