By Jack Mason
Small Times Correspondent
NEWARK, N.J., Feb. 28, 2002 — At Fornos Restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound District, a meeting of MEMS minds is under way between bites of Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce) and other Iberian dishes.
The MEMS Journal Club, New Jersey branch, is in session. The second oldest of about a half-dozen informal groups around the United States, this group was formed in 1998 and has typically gathered for dinner followed by a guest speaker at nearby New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) or another area host.
Journal clubs on scientific subjects are popular in academia for exchanging ideas and building community. The first MEMS journal club was started in the San Francisco Bay area in 1992 by Rolfe Anderson and has grown to more than 800, with monthly attendees
|MEMS Journal Club member Kenneth “Beau”|
Farmer is an associate professor of physics who
runs the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s
Microelectronics Research Center. He teaches
hands-on “Intro to MEMS” class.
“Initially I just wanted to get more access to people in the industry,” says Anderson, who is now senior director of device integration with Aclara Biosciences Inc.
In New Jersey a group of nine recently came together for the first time in more than a year to hear from a former NJIT colleague, Steven Walsh, who is now director of the technology entrepreneurship program at University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management. Many of the dinner attendees had been involved with micromachines long before small tech captured the interest of the popular media and business world.
Walsh, president of the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF) and co-chair of a project to “roadmap” the development of the MEMS industry, has come to discuss the challenges of building and commercializing MEMS.
Around the restaurant table, an assembly of eminent MEMS experts — educators, research scientists, engineers, journal editors and MEMS thought leaders like Walsh — are talking MEMS, from the historical to the rhetorical.
Which is the oldest MEMS company? Walsh contends that pressure sensor maker Kulite Semiconductor Products of Leonia, N.J., established in 1959, holds that distinction. As for the rhetorical, someone questions whether most RF (radio frequency) MEMS are MEMS at all, or merely just very small mechanical (but not electromechanical) devices.
The real lesson of MEMS Club is evident not just in this particular group, but also across the loose network of similar forums that have cropped up in places including Boston, Cleveland and Southern California: that small tech is ultimately about the community of people creating it.
Some of the micromachine pioneers in attendance:
Tall, soft-spoken Bill Trimmer was instrumental in starting the group. The founding editor of the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, Trimmer also edited the book, “Micromechanics and MEMS.” He helped get MEMS rolling in the late 1980s as co-chairman of National Science Foundation workshops that laid some of the groundwork for the field.
Trimmer holds a Ph.D. in physics from Wesleyan University and worked at Bell Labs until 1990 as well as with Standard MEMS Inc. in recent years. He currently runs Belle Mead Research Inc., a MEMS consulting practice, and has a business plan for a MEMS startup.
“Most of us are scientists, so when we first started the group, everyone was a little hesitant to talk,” says Trimmer. “But now we’ve all become friendly and this has become a great way to bring the community together, to get to know each other, and to find out what’s going on outside the circle.”
At the center of the circle is Kenneth “Beau” Farmer, an associate professor of physics who runs NJIT’s Microelectronics Research Center. Farmer earned his Ph.D. at Cornell, where he specialized in microfabrication. For the last three years he has taught a hands-on “Intro to MEMS” class at NJIT and Columbia University in which students get a chance to model, make and test their own simple MEMS devices such as accelerometers or flow sensors.
Farmer, Walsh and Bill Carr, a NJIT professor of electrical and computer engineering, were part of the team that set up the New Jersey MEMS Initiative in 1998, a program started with financial support from the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology that combines R&D, commercialization and education efforts.
Other club members on hand are emblematic of the initiative’s bridge-building: Sid Marshall, former editor of Cahners Micromachine Devices newsletter, is now vice president of Glimmerglass Ltd., a new communications company focused on small tech; Joe Fine is an electrical engineer with ITT Industries; Sean Hallahan is a high-tech entrepreneur interested in policy development and investment opportunities in MEMS and Ron Scotti is another Bell Labs alumnus.
Walsh begins with what he sees as the three converging forces driving MEMS: business, universities and government. He calls the intertwining interactions between academia, government and industry the Triple Helix. He notes that collaboration between the three groups is necessary not only to speed commercialization, but also to help establish entire new industries and jobs.
Farmer believes that the N.J. MEMS Initiative represents the Triple Helix in action — a government-funded, university-centered, commercially focused effort. In its three-year history, the MEMS Initiative has involved some 25 outside MEMS companies and helped develop prototype products for some of them, run workshops for engineers at the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal, and graduated its first Ph.D., M.S. and undergraduate MEMS specialists.
One recent undergraduate who joined Analog Devices Inc. from NJIT told Farmer that her new colleagues were impressed by how much real fabrication experience she had.
Indeed, Walsh argues that universities play a critical role in MEMS commercialization, not merely as sources of technological research and development, but also as “clusters,” geographical and intellectual hotbeds where expertise can concentrate and human skills — as well as new businesses — can germinate. He identifies a number of these knots of knowledge spinning out from groups of universities in areas including New Jersey/New York, the Route 128 corridor outside Boston, his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., and Silicon Valley.
As for MEMS’ ultimate market potential, Walsh says five-year estimates are all over the map, from $4 billion to $40 billion, depending on assumptions and methodologies used in different studies. But he also says the sharp rise in the number of MEMS-related patents in recent years serves as reasonable anecdotal evidence that MEMS is a potent phenomenon.
However, Walsh believes MEMS technology is highly disruptive and will ultimately compel companies to change how they manufacture as well as how they think about their business. In the near-term, some companies have inherent resistance to disruptive technology. He suggests, for example, that a company making a $100,000 mass spectrometer would not be inclined to cannibalize itself by developing a $1,000 MEMS-powered product.
“People who make those kinds of suggestions often end up with offices in the basement,” quips Walsh.
Indeed, many companies focused on incremental improvements in their existing products and profits may not even see the totally new possibilities a disruptive technology (such as the debut of the integrated circuit) offers. “Companies making vacuum tubes in the early days of integrated circuits didn’t envision making computers,” says Walsh. “They simply saw another way to make power amplifiers.”
Such radical shifts in business compelled by new forces such as small tech are examples of what Walsh and other business thinkers call “discontinuous change,” historical moments in which the linear progression of products, industries and economies is challenged by the relatively rapid emergence of a new technological paradigm.
Take the commercialization of electricity. When it was first commercialized, lighting was the only application envisioned for it. No one could imagine all the unprecedented uses, such as powered factory equipment, refrigeration and communications.
If the MEMS revolution is to emerge from the Triple Helix of business, academia and government, it will be conveyed through human will and human interaction, the macrocosm of social circles like the New Jersey and Bay Area MEMS Clubs or Farmer’s cross-sector MEMS initiative.
“The initiative was intended to be an enabling program — to get things going,” says Farmer. “But to be an enabler you have to do more than bring people together. That’s why we also provided the resources like MEMS design software and wafer bonding equipment to make things happen.”
Now Farmer hopes that the MEMS match lit by the New Jersey Initiative can become a self-sustaining fire, perhaps evolving into a business and technology incubator with a Triple Helix investment from public, private and academic sectors.