Barriers to the Commercialization Issues of Nanotechnology: Lessons Learned from its Big Brother (a.k.a. MEMS/MST)

by

Roger H. Grace
President, Roger Grace Associates
Past President/Co-Founder, Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF)

rgrace@rgrace.com
www.rgrace.com

Barriers to the commercialization of every technology exist. Nanotechnology and Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS)/Microsystems Technologies (MST) are not exceptions. In his Journal of Applied Physics article, Charles Smith of Bell Labs notes the first manifestation of MEMS to be the discovery of the piezoresistive effect in Germanium and Silicon in 1954. We are currently at a half-century of MEMS research, design, and development. Many people ask, "Why has it taken so long for the MEMS/MST market and technology to realize it’s potential or reach the expected volumes?" Will Nanotechnology face the same barriers?

Here, I will attempt to address the major barriers to the commercialization of MEMS/MST and the progress made to overcome these barriers through the introduction of a "MEMS Industry Report Card " given in Figure 1. The report card has been updated yearly since 1998 [1], where it was first presented at the seminal Hilton Head Conference. The changes in grades from 1998 to 2004 will be addressed here with some rationale for the actual grade as well as recommendations for improvement. For the successful commercialization of Nanotechnology, lessons learned from the MEMS/MST areas must be heeded.

R&D (Grade = A-): Spending on MEMS R&D has been robust even before 1998 with DARPA/ARPA making major investments early in the game. It has been through the visionary leadership and recommendations of many DARPA staffers that judicious investments have been made in MEMS that have been the foundation of its commercialization. Private funding also has historically supported this R&D activity in a robust fashion. The year 2004 not only saw a downturn in the high-tech economy but in corporate R&D budgets (including personnel). The 2004 grade continued from an its "A-" value in 2003.

Marketing (Grade = C)/Market Research (Grade = B+): Marketing grades have moved slowly from the 1998 C- value to C+. MEMS/MST companies, by and large have been created by strong technically-oriented people who tend to believe in the "build it and they shall come" mantra. Not much formal market research historically has been conducted to determine customer needs and price points. This lack of marketing, market research, and marketing expertise still exists today in direct comparison to the excellent and significant marketing/promotion activities demonstrated by the semiconductor industry. For MEMS/MST to be truly successful, a major effort must be undertaken by solution providers to understand customers needs/wants, to provide unique solutions, and to provide adequate resources to promote each companies’ market position, brand, and approach to solving these issues as well as to differentiate its products against its competition. Faster, better, cheaper is the mantra of the semiconductor industry in direct response to customers’ needs. MEMS/MST producers need to adopt a similar customer-centric attitude.

Established Infrastructure (Grade = A): Since its C+ 1998 grade, this area has improved significantly. In early days, most MEMS processing equipment, packaging, and test were "hand-me-downs" from the semiconductor industry. Most MEMS/MST fabs today use 6" diameter wafers for high-volume production; many still use 4" wafers. A handful use 8". For MEMS/MST fabrication, in-house process engineers typically accomplished modifications to the existing semiconductor process design driven tools. Today things have dramatically improved with many companies, e.g. EV Group and Suss MicroTec, providing custom MEMS/MST specific equipment solutions, much in the same fashion as has been done in the semiconductor industry. In addition, MEMS/MST specific design automation tools are being made available by a number of suppliers, including Coventor, and MEMScap. In the case of the increasingly more popular fabless semiconductor model, most newly created MEMS companies are fabless since there is a selection of over 60 worldwide sources of MEMS/MST foundries in business today. The capacity of the MEMS/MST industry is to create in excess of its current needs. Value is one of the most significant barriers to the commercialization of MEMS/MST. Packaging and testing are most costly for MEMS/MST today while market applications drive prices to the bottom. These are conflicting and one must give in. When MEMS/MST provides value such as Pentium processors or if packaging and testing can be brought to the level of a few pennies the cost / value hurdle will be removed and the floodgates open for MEMS/MST.

Industry Association (Grade = B+): In 1998, no association existed to promote the MEMS industry and its commercialization. Today the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF) (www.mancef.org) and MEMS Industry Group (MIG) (www.memsindustrygroup.org) are growing not-for-profits supporting this industry. MANCEF, founded in 1999, boasts over 600 members worldwide and has as its primary goal the education of the micro and nanosystems industry through the creation and dissemination of information to the people, organizations, and governments who are in the position to influence the commercialization process. Its annual Commercialization of Micro and Nanosystems Conference (COMS) is a unique forum which addresses the major issues of commercialization over a three and one-half day period with over 100 world-recognized experts making presentations. The COMS 2003 program was held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, with over 260 attendees. COMS 2004 was held in Edmonton, Canada, from August 29 – September 2. and attracted over 325 attendees.

In addition, the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (SEMI) (www.semi.org) organization has recently formed the International MEMS Steering Group (IMSG). The semiconductor industry owes a great deal of its success to the SEMI and SEMATECH organizations and their efforts to organize, inform, and standardize the semiconductor industry. The MEMS/MST industry needs to similarly embrace organizations whose role is to help facilitate the commercialization of this technology.

Standards (Grade = B-): SEMI has been the major proponent of helping facilitate the creation of standards for MEMS as they have historically been for the semiconductor industry. The last three years have seen increased interest by the MEMS/MST industry to support standards. This is evident by the initiation of the first two MEMS/MST process standards currently under development and the eight meetings over the past two years of the SEMI MEMS Standards Committee. The maturity of an industry can be directly related to the development and issuance of standards. Lesson to be learned from the Semiconductor Industry: Over 640 SEMI standards exist today. The adoption of these standards brings a number of benefits to the users – both equipment suppliers and device manufacturers including lower product cost and faster time to market of the end product. For MEMS/MST to accelerate its commercialization timetable, it will be necessary for it to create and adopt many process, packaging, and testing standards.

Profitability (Grade = C-), Creation of Wealth (Grade = C-), and Venture Capital Attraction (Grade = C): The downturn in worldwide economic conditions has severely punished most high technology companies, including companies with MEMS/MST programs. Corresponding to the height of the NASDAQ in 1999 and early 2000, many new MEMS/MST companies, especially those participating in the booming optical telecom market, were founded. Today, it is quite a different story. Little activity exists in new startups. Most MEMS/MST optical telecom companies have gone out of business or have been consolidated. VC’s have elected to not continue to fund many of these companies. Mergers and acquisitions have been on the upturn, especially in optical telecom. The early wealth created in the MEMS/MST industry by a small number of entrepreneurs was vis-à-vis acquisition by large optical telecom companies. Due to the demise of this industry, these acquired MEMS/MST companies also were adversely affected, sold, or written off by their previous owners. A number of biomems companies have gone public in the 1996-1998 timeframe. However, these companies have not been as successful as hoped for with their sales volumes less than projected and stock prices currently not much higher than their original offering price and certainly significant less than their historical high. Profitable MEMS/MST companies are few and far between (e.g. Micralyne and NovaSensor). This is due to many factors including the commoditization of solutions (automotive sensors), small number of killer applications, and lack of product differentiation and adequate marketing.

Industry Roadmap (Grade A): Two MEMS/MST industry roadmaps currently exist. The MANCEF International Commercialization Roadmap, which was published in February, 2003 is a 16-chapter, 614-page classical technology-driven roadmap, addressing many of the issues in this article including standards and infrastructure (www.mancef.org). The early work on this publication was funded by SEMI. A September 2004 update to this document included chapters on patents and RF MEMS. The Nexus roadmap (www.nexus-mems.com), which was formally introduced to the market in September 2003, is a product-market roadmap created to a large degree from inputs of the numerous Nexus User-Supplier Clubs. Together, these roadmaps provide readers with a wealth of information to aid in the commercialization of MEMS.

Technology Cluster Development (Grade = B+): This subject was added in 2003 to reflect the ever-increasing value that regional and federal governments place on micro and nanotechnology as a viable business. No less than 20 MEMS/MST/NANO clusters have been formed since the first one in Dortmund Germany in 1989 [2]. Currently, clusters exist or are in the process of being formed in Europe, Asia/Pacific, North and South America. To date, thousands of highly trained and high paying jobs and scores of companies owe their existence to the creation of these more than 20 clusters. Lesson to be learned from the Semiconductor Industry: Clusters certainly have existed in the semiconductor industry since the early 60’s. Silicon Valley, Route 128, and Austin, Texas are most noteworthy. The intellectural property, source of capital funding and establishment of in-depth infrastructure associated with semi clusters are prerequisites for future success.

So, what commercialization lessons have been learned to date by the Nanotechnology industry and what are the key lessons to be learned from the semiconductor and MEMS/MST industries? 1) do not create technology for technology sake…the raison d’etre should be a well defined market need for a specific solution that is uniquely enabled by a nanotechnology-based solution. 2) care must be taken to understand competitive offerings and to communicate/promote to the market the unique customer benefit of the nanotechnology-based approach. 3) do not fall prey and participate in the great "hype" of nanotechnology in the popular press.

It is gratifying that nanotechnology research has received a great deal of support from governments worldwide with 2004 funding levels at approximately $1.0 Billion US. MEMS/MST has never achieved this level of support from federal governments and is more than likely not to ever achieve such. In addition, a great deal of private investment through venture capital has made itself available…more so than has ever been available for MEMS/MST. A number of the companies that are being funded are in the equipment and metrology area…the creation of a solid manufacturing infrastructure to insure large throughput and low cost nanotechnology-based solutions was a major deficiency of the MEMS/MST industry as can be seen from the report card. Most noteworthy is the National Science Foundation in the US and their major support through numerous grants to support Nanomanufacturing research.

At this point in time, it appears that nanotechnology has been a good student of its bigger brother i.e. MEMS/MST in a number of areas noted above. The challenge will be to continue to fund research; attract venture capital money; continue to support infrastructure development including design for manufacturing, metrology and manufacturing equipment; and to create roadmaps and standards to help guide the direction of these efforts.

Summary

As one can see, the MEMS/MST industry has made significant advances in overcoming commercialization barriers since the first report card was published in 1998. Many lessons have and still need to be learned from the semiconductor industry (as well as other industries). It is interesting to note that education continues generation after generation, today education opportunities abound in the nanotechnology industry from its big brother, the MEMS/MST industry. The author strongly recommends that people interested in the commercialization of nanotechnology become students of the progress of both semiconductors and MEMS. To quote a popular author, George Santayana in his book, The Age of Reason (1908-1910)…"Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it".

References

[1] Presentation to Solid State Sensors and Actuators Conference, Hilton Head, South Carolina, June, 1988.

[2] R.H. Grace. Technology Clusters and Their Role in the Development of the Microsystems Industry, Proceedings of COMS 2003, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, September 8-11, 2003. (www.rgrace.com)