India ready to launch its first
privately funded MEMS lab

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July 25, 2002 — The small tech industry in India is poised to take a step forward this October, with the launch of the new CranesSci MEMS Lab.

The MEMS research lab is a collaboration between the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and an Indian software company, Cranes Software International Ltd., also based in Bangalore.

According to Cranes, the lab will get started with a $600,000 seed fund contributed by India’s University Grants Commission, a government agency that helps develop educational organizations in the country; a government assisted program on smart materials called the National Program on Smart Materials; IISc and Cranes Software.

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The lab’s primary objective is to conduct research in MEMS and develop designs for MEMS-based devices. Cranes said the lab will house a design studio and a microdynamics lab.

According to the company, the CranesSci MEMS Lab will only conduct design and testing, while fabrication will be done at the Indian government-sponsored MEMS foundry owned by the state-run semiconductor maker, Semiconductor Complex Ltd., in the Indian city of Chandigarh, or any other fabrication facility.

Besides the contribution of its share of the startup capital, Cranes also agreed to fund research over the next three years, according to Rudra Pratap, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at IISc.

Pratap said this lab is special to India “not only because it is one of the first private sector ventures in research, but also because a small enterprise like Cranes had considered funding MEMS research without any promise of results.”

The MEMS industry in India is still in its infancy, but given the interest some companies are showing, it is expected to grow very quickly. There is no single company dedicated only to MEMS, but many Indian technology companies have started MEMS divisions.

The first, and perhaps the only, Indian MEMS customers until now have been government agencies such as defense and space research. Since the Indian government is the main patron of MEMS, there are a few state-sponsored research and fabrication labs. The research labs are located at the country’s premier engineering institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur and Mumbai, and at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Two more research labs are also housed at the Solid State Physics Laboratory near Delhi and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

India’s fabrication facilities are located at the Central Electronics Research Institute in Pilani, the Indian Technical Institute in Bangalore, Bharat Engineering Co. Ltd. in Bangalore and Semiconductor Complex Ltd. in Chandigarh.

India’s automobile industry is expected to join the lab in a year or two. But Pratap expects the biggest opportunity will come when MEMS devices for biomedical applications hit the market.

Meanwhile, Pratap is quite upbeat about the Cranes lab. “If a small company like Cranes can think big, it is also an indication of how the mindset of the Indian industry is changing towards research and development in general and in high tech areas like MEMS in particular.”

He said that already a few privately owned companies in the country have either started work or is gearing up to take up MEMS seriously. These include, U.S.-based companies with operations in India like Honeywell and General Electric Co., and Indian companies Cranes Software and Titan Industries Ltd.

The CranesSci MEMS Lab’s research team has nine members right now, and more will be added after the lab starts full-fledged operations. Meanwhile, Pratap said, the lab has already started work. “You may see a patent rolling out in a couple of months,” he said.

The initial work that has started is on a MEMS software product that benefits the student community, said Pratap. “Engineering colleges today, barring a few top ones, have no access to MEMS software,” he said. “If we can give them a software design tool, it will lead to enormous manpower generation.”

According to Asif Khader, Cranes’ chief executive, the lab may also consider giving commercial exploration to third parties. Cranes and IISc will equally share the intellectual property rights of projects that are directly funded by Cranes and IISC. However, third parties would just be charged appropriate fees, said Cranes sources.

Initial projects will also include MEMS sensors for acoustic applications and ultrasound sensors, besides development of analysis tools and software for engineers working in the area.

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