SWISS MEMS COMPANY SEES
PROFITABILITY IN FLEXIBILITY

By Jo McIntyre
Small Times Correspondent

Feb. 19, 2002 — The name of a Swiss custom MEMS manufacturer, Colibrys, tells much about current trends in the industry.

The name comes from the French word for hummingbird, a creature that moves up, down and sideways, said Sean Neylon, the company’s chief executive.

But trends in the tech industry aside, Colibrys officials say they are keeping with the spirit of their name in the company’s ability to quickly move in any direction, altering its MEMS designs to fit the customers.

It’s this flexibility, crucial for a young MEMS industry that does not yet operate under any single set of standards, that is also responsible for the relative success of other MEMS companies.

Like Colibrys, Corning IntelliSense is one of the more experienced companies in the MEMS world. It was founded in 1991 with no outside investment and has grown since then, said Andy Swiecki, vice president of marketing and sales. Corning Inc. acquired the company in June 2000.

The company provides volume manufacturing services and prototyping services, including foundry services, product development services and MEMS design software. In fact, in the IntelliSuite design software, the company is now in its seventh generation of software code.

“MEMS is different from the semiconductor industry,” Swiecki said. “Along with the MEMS product design is a unique process design. Because of this it is important to work with a MEMS facility which has the necessary experience with this relatively new technology.”

Colibrys fits into this pattern of process and product designing and building, though the company does not manufacture large volumes. It does use several software packages in its design process, including some developed in-house during its days as a department in a Swiss research lab.

The software was “developed over 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears,” Neylon said.

“About 80 percent of our customers buy custom MEMS,” Neylon said. “We make MEMS chips and test the whole package.” Colibrys can make switches, chips or both. Among his customers are Honeywell International Inc., Leica Microsystems, Agilent Technologies and Nortel Networks.

Sales picking up and the company is getting ready to show new prototypes at an upcoming trade show in Anaheim, Calif., Neylon said.

“We will reach a break-even point on a sustainable basis in 2002,” though that point doesn’t include additional long-term capital investments for the future, he cautioned

The company is showing two products at the Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) trade show and exhibit on March 19-21: one for mirror microarrays with applications in optical switching and another for a variable optical attenuator (VOA), which is a shutter that adjusts the power of optical signals passing through it, said Michel Minck, Colibrys’ marketing team leader.

Colibrys makes magnetic print heads, optical components and modules for telecom companies, as well as micro-optical elements for ultraviolet illumination, accelerometers, tilt sensors and ionizing radiation detectors.

The company operates a new 53,000-square-foot, medium-volume production facility where semicustom components for telecom, navigation and medical imaging applications, among others, are made.

Colibrys already had rapid sales growth before in spun off from a Swiss research lab on Jan. 1, 2001, according to Minck. “Sales growth over the past five years was 35 percent per year,” he said, adding that the last quarter of 2001 was a bit weaker than expected.

Neylon sees a possible end to the gloom. “We have seen a significant pickup in Q1 already. It is difficult to know how much is seasonal and how much is cyclical. We normally have a seasonal upturn in Q1, but we also see a pickup in the business,” beyond the normal upturn, he said.

Colibrys has received $12 million from venture funders, including Intel Capital, Aventic Partners AG and Banexis Ventures.

In November, Colibrys and Coventor Inc., another Intel Capital-funded company based in Cary, N.C., teamed up to develop MEMS for optical communications. Colibrys will use Coventor’s design software to develop custom MEMS devices for optical systems, as well as for diffractive optics, accelerometers and sensors.

The planned demonstrations at OFC in Anaheim are projects that also were designed using Coventor software.

“The key factor that persuaded me to invest in Coventor software was its ease of use — which allows us to design with confidence and quickly — and it is comprehensive.” Neylon said.

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