SION, Switzerland — Quietly perking away in a small town in Switzerland is Mimotec SA, a company named for its patented MEMS technique – MIcro-MOlds TEChnology.
The company expects to use income from sales of its micromachined metal parts to finance its current push into the microfluidic component market.
In fact, CEO Hubert Lorenz, who has headed Mimotec since he and three other shareholders founded the company in 1998, believes micromolds will be Mimotec’s best shot at the U.S. market.
“The future for us is in microfluidic components,” said Lorenz, 36. Glass or silicon plates etched with microchannels can be too expensive. With Mimotec’s plastic parts, a biotechnician can run a test, then throw away the plate.
Industry analyst Marlene Bourne, of In-Stat/MDR, said Mimotec’s use of polymers, or plastics, is consistent with microfluidics research in Europe. Polymers, she said, cost less and are more compatible with living tissue.
There is plenty of competition in microfluidics, she said, so Mimotec is almost a little behind the game. “It might be tough for somebody to break into that, but not impossible.” One advantage the company has over potential competitors is its existing income stream, “because it allows them to explore another market without being dependent on entering that market.”
Industry analyst Eric Mounier of Yole Developpement in Lyon, France, said Mimotec has “a good business model. (Their) low cost components will be very important for applications such as microfluidics.”
The company’s income stream comes from production of ultrasmall, moving parts for its current customers, including watch manufacturers, using improved standard microforming techniques and metal parts made of nickel and nickel alloys: nickel phosphorous or nickel cobalt, which are both strong and flexible.
Mimotec also uses a patented MEMS process to make molds for parts. The process combines the low costs of UV lithography, which uses ultraviolet light radiation to etch and transfer a pattern onto a smooth-surfaced mold form, extra-thin resins and an IBM-developed photoresist called SU-8, an epoxy used in making micromolds.
A photoresist is a light-sensitive material. When hit by the light, it loses its resistance to chemical etching. But SU-8 has a big problem. It cannot be dissolved away after the part is cast.
Scott Heidemann, marketing manager at MicroChem Corp. of Newton, Mass., provides SU-8 to many of companies involved in microfluidics.
“SU-8 is an epoxy, which is resistant to most chemistries, including conventional photoresist strippers,” Heidemann said.
“In fact we’ve worked closely with many leading manufacturers of photoresist strippers trying to develop a solvent stripping solution and to date have had only limited success. Some strippers, including our Remover PG, are able to swell and lift off minimally cross-linked SU-8. However, no solvent based stripper that we’ve looked at has been able to strip cured imaged SU-8 films.”
Here is where another Mimotec patented technology comes in: The company uses high pressure water jets to blast the epoxy away.
One new U.S. customer is James E. Watson, project leader at 3M’s Optoelectronic Technology Center in Minnesota. He found Mimotec’s Web site as he researched techniques for dealing with SU-8. Watson is working on a critical optical application. He decided to order Mimotec’s micromold for creating plastic parts.
“We sent them a CAD file. They made the photomask. What we asked them to make was pretty close to their standard product, but we asked for a better, smoother surface finish.” Delivery took about two weeks longer than he expected, but Watson is happy with the result.
Established in 1998 by Hubert Lorenz after he developed the technology while a doctoral student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
Small tech related products and services
Mimotec develops and manufactures custom precision micromolds and microcomponents using “electro forming,” a patented photolithography/electroplating process. Among other applications, Mimotec’s process can be used in the watchmaking and biomedical sensor niches.
Mimotec began with $266,000 financed via angel investors and family contributions. The company also used two bank loans and two subsidies from CTI, the Swiss Committee for Technology and Innovation.
$1 million in 2001, on track to $1.2 million in sales in 2002
Breaking into the U.S. market
Most competitors are research labs that are part of larger companies. In microfluidics components, competitors are Caliper Technologies, Aclara and Orchid Biosciences.
Increase sales of microfluidics components for lab equipment in the United States.
Why are they’re in small tech
“I chose microtechnology because it is the fusion of micromechanics and microelectronic. Both domains concern me,” says CEO Hubert Lorenz. “With Mimotec we make micromechanical products with technologies from the microelectronic.”
What keeps them up at night
“Looking for how to produce more cleverly and for better ways to remove SU-8 from our parts. I’ve even offered a $4,000 reward on the SU-8 Web site,” Lorenz said.
Swiss refuse to stay neutral in small tech
— Research by Gretchen McNeely