Last Tuesday,the MEMS Technology Summit at Stanford University, opened with a welcome by Professor Roger Howe. Roger not only provided a brief history of MEMS at Stanford, he was his characteristic gracious self and welcomed even those with close ties to Berkeley especially the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center (BSAC). Truth-be-told even though Roger is a Mudder first, he did earn a MS and PhD in electrical engineering (EE) from the University of California (Berkeley) and was a professor there for 18 years prior to moving to Stanford. In addition to being a professor in the Stanford EE department since 2005, he is also the director of the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility. Not only did Roger set a welcoming light-hearted tone which made the event extremely enjoyable, he was indicative of the caliber of speakers in terms of academic and professional achievements. Steve Zadig (VP Operations at Telegent Systems) later related that his secret to success was “to be the dumbest guy in the room”. And with this crowd it was very easy to achieve that.
Below are the highlights from the Tuesday morning Special Presentations session celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of NovaSensor (acquired by GE in 2002). The three founders of NovaSensor were also the organizers and MCs of the summit. [agenda, abstracts, speaker biographies]
Kurt Petersen, KP MEMS , “Managing MEMS by Walking Around”
- In 1975 there were three basic applications for MEMS: pressure sensors, strain gauges, and thermal print heads (from Texas Instruments). Total annual volume for the entire market was about one million units.
- Today there are “tons” of applications and many billion parts are shipped each year.
- Some of the largest volume parts also have a huge impact on the world. The best examples of this are air-bag accelerometers and gyroscopes for electronic stability control which save lives on a daily basis.
- Two companies that are leading the development of MEMS on glass are QUALCOMM with their mirasol displays and Pixtronix. Having the advantage of scaling to the size of LCD panels, MEMS on glass will benefit from drastically lower production costs.
- Moving forward, there will be a continued focus on medical devices. One of his companies, Profusa which is in “stealth mode”, is developing an implantable plastic microstructure. A skin patch will then interrogate it and send the data over the wireless network.
- When asked what will be the title for the 50th anniversary, he replied: “Something about the brain. Lots of implantable work going on.”
Joseph R. Mallon, Jr., axept , “Mixing MEMS with a Thirst for Knowledge”
- When he started in semiconductors in 1965 at Kulite Semiconductor Products the prevailing thought was that the vacuum tube companies (GE, RCA, Sylvania, etc.) would dominate the market making it unattractive for others. They were right about the market being dominated, but not by the companies they had feared. So they focused on piezo crystals to build pressure transducers.
- Then they developed bulk Si strain gauges fabricated by chemical milling. They solved the classical paradigm of choosing two of three parameters: cheap, accurate, small by focusing on small and accurate parts.
- When they started NovaSensor they hardly knew business since they were engineering guys. They wrote the business plan from a book. But they did manage to get both equity funding and a development contract from Schlumberger.
- Pressure sensors themselves were super boring at NovaSensor – they were far more interested in how they were built. Roger Grace joined them to handle marketing and he started talking about MEMS. But they were too early – no one knew what the real market was.
Janusz Bryzek, Jyve Inc. , “Crossing MEMS Chasm in Search of Tornado”
- Per the late Bob Sulouff from Analog Devices: There are two phases in commercialization technology:
- Phase 1: use money to develop technology.
- Phase 2: use technology to make money.
Making the transition from Phase 1 to 2 is very difficult. Many attempt it, but few make it. And on the average it takes 20 years!
- At NovaSensor they developed 40 different devices in the first four years. However, most of their revenue was derived from about five devices. (They shipped several billion of them over several years.) Their largest market was disposable blood pressure sensors and tire pressure sensors.
- At LV Sensors they developed tire pressure sensing systems since the target market was large enough – estimated to be 400 M units in 2015. LV Sensors was acquired by Atmel.
- His current company “Jyve” is in stealth mode. They are focused on the integration of MEMS with VLSI technology.
- A MEMS device needs to find a “Consumer Tornado” to be successful (in terms of volume and revenue). He showed a chart from Yole Research – similar to the one above (from Yole’s presentation at Semicon West) – showing the tornado effect.
- So what are the future tornados? It is best to look at what the venture capitalists (VCs) are funding in health care and biotech:
- Healthcare – remote home care focused on chronic conditions. This will move to handset / tablet based personal health monitoring.
- Lab on chip – combine with a cell phone to form a personal diagnostic system.
- Medical imaging using Tera Hertz signals.
- Breath analyzers. Dogs are currently trained to detect problems such as low sugar levels. Sensors are being developed to replace the dogs. Breath and other non-invasive measurements would benefit diabetic care.
- Digestible sensors tied to cell phone to record data.
- The cell phone is enabling new MEMS tornados. The market is huge (lots of room for billion dollar tornadoes) and applications are unlimited. Thanks to Steve Jobs!
- Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success talks about patterns in phenomena including how successful people in certain industries are born in a range of three years. For example the mining barons, railroad barons, and computer moguls (Gates, Jobs, etc.) were born very close in time. So you may have to check your birth year for success in MEMS…