By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer
ALBUQUERQUE – Paul McWhorter, a Sandia National Laboratories scientist turned entrepreneur, hopes his new company will be the X factor in optical switching.
Which is why there’s a capital “X” in his start-up small-tech company. Take the first three letters from MEMS — microelectromechanical systems — add an “X” and you’ve got MEMX Inc., launched last October.
|The four Sandia scientists who founded |
MEMX are, from left, Paul McWhorter,
Sam Miller, Jeff Sniegowski
and Steve Rogers.
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McWhorter, MEMX’s chief technology officer, hopes the switch will be at the heart of the Holy Grail of telecommunications – creating an all-optical network that eliminates the electronic switches that act as speed bumps at various junctions of the Internet Highway.
MEMX is showing potential clients two prototypes, each about two centimeters square. One carries 100 surface mirrors that tilt and pivot independently. The other chip has 256 mirrors. McWhorter says the company has come up with design plans for a chip containing 1,000 mirrors but has yet to prototype it.
But this cutting edge technology faces daunting commercial odds.
Competition includes large, well-funded companies, including Tellium Inc., Lucent Technologies Inc., Optical Micro-machines Inc., Integrated Micromachines Inc., and Xros, which kicked off the gold rush in optical when it was bought by Nortel Networks in March of 2000 for the stunning figure or $3.25 billion in stock. Xros had only 90 employees at the time.
But McWhorter, and one of his former bosses, Al Romig, say that Sandia technology – and its SUMMiT V process for building integrated microdevices — may help MEMX compete against companies with more money and bigger staffs.
SUMMING UP SUMMiT V
SUMMiT stands for Sandia Ultra-planar, Multi-level Technology. McWhorter says Sandia researchers decided to stick an “i” in the name because they needed a vowel to round out the acronym.
The technology uses polycrystalline silicon, also known as polysilicon or simply poly. At the small scale of MEMS devices, poly is stronger than steel, is very flexible, does not readily fatigue and is compatible with inexpensive batch fabrication processes used in the making of integrated chips.
The SUMMiT V process has four mechanical layers and one layer that serves as the electrical interconnect to power moving parts. Mechanical devices such as gears or springs are made by alternately depositing a film, then using chemicals to etch out the pattern, a process known as photolithography. By repeating the process with layers of silicon dioxide and polycrystalline silicon, interlocking, three-dimensional devices are created.
When the five-layer fabrication process is complete, the silicon dioxide is chemically removed, leaving behind the mechanical devices made up of poly. Sandia officials say their process allows taller devices (up to 12 microns high) with greater stiffness and more mechanical robustness than competing MEMS technologies.
Rival processes use just three layers, limiting the complexity of an etched device, says Romig, Sandia’s chief technology officer and vice-president for science, technology and partnerships. “You can build optical mirrors that have more mechanical capability than devices you can build with fewer layers.”
Small Times Media’s parent company, Ardesta LLC, has signed a non-exclusive license that allows it to use the SUMMiT V process in future commercial applications.
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL LEAP
McWhorter, a Stanford grad who joined Sandia in 1984, was deputy director of the lab’s Microsystems Science, Technology and Components Center before taking a two-year non-paid leave to spin-off MEMX last October.
Joining him were three other Sandia scientists – Sam Miller, Jeff Sniegowski and Steve Rogers.
“This step is important for the commercialization of MEMS and fits in with Sandia’s primary mission – national security,” says Romig.
“Back in the old days, when we wanted to put new technologies into high-consequence areas, such as nuclear weapons, we tested them and tested them and tested them. Which was a very expensive process. Now, we take the technology after the first few stages, then spin it into the commercial market and let the commercial market mature it. Getting the technology out of the labs and into commercial applications will give us the confidence needed to deploy it in critical defense applications.”
Sandia took an equity position in MEMX in exchange for licensing its technology, and provides its labs and clean rooms for prototype and product development.
“We took four of our best and brightest and told them to go off and do it,” says Romig.
MEMX was organized by TMA Ventures of Denver, an incubator of high-tech start-ups, which helped it raise $5.5 million in seed funding from two Nashville companies, Investco and Council Capital Management, LLC.
The company, which now employs 10, is in the midst of trying to raise $8 million in another round of funding and has hired a head-hunting firm to find a CEO, says McWhorter.
“We had a lot of apprehensions,” says McWhorter of MEMX’s founders. “We loved our jobs at Sandia and will always be indebted for the opportunity there. But it’s hard to push technology from the inside. We had to step out and pull it into commercial applications.”
BARRIERS TO SUCCESS
Industry observers say that while the SUMMiT V technology is impressive, MEMX has numerous and substantial obstacles to marketplace success:
* There is both quality and quantity in the competition, which also includes many start-ups funded in the 15 months since the Xros acquisition by Nortel.
* After a gold rush to start and fund optical-components companies last fall and winter, there has been a falloff in investment capital to the sector, and many of those start-ups have gone out of business.
* The need to convert a prototype into a mass-produced, reliable product is a cash-intensive proposition even with help from Sandia’s world-class labs and clean rooms.
* An all-optical switching system using mechanically operated mirrors is so complicated that, even if successful, it might be just a temporary solution before a simpler system comes into place.
“If technology is the discriminating factor in who is going to win, MEMX will be the hands-down winner,” says David Williams, Sandia’s director of microsystems science, technology, and components. “But success is more complicated than that.”
“We did our homework, and we understand the marketplace and the capital they will need, and we think they have the highest probability of success,” says Romig. “But the marketplace is a fickle thing.
“There are three drivers for failure – undercapitalization, bad management and inferior technology. MEMX might fail because someone else has more capital. But our gamble is the technology is so good it will allow us to prevail.”
McWhorter acknowledges “it’s a very crowded field, now. But a lot of these companies are vertically integrated. What makes us unique is we’re focusing on a solution at the chip level. We’re not trying to build the whole system; we’re trying to nail down the MEMS part of it. Many companies have particular products in mind that could benefit from really elegant MEMS solutions.”
“At the beginning of the year, there was on the order of 43 competitors for MEMX,” says Williams. “They’re dropping at the rate of one a week, now. It’s down to half what it was, so in some sense, the tech wreck has been a blessing.”
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Tom Henderson at email@example.com or call 734-994-1106, ext. 233.