Oct. 2, 2002 — At sales meetings, the founders of Triad Sensors talk up their first product: a sensor chip. But they prefer to think of it as a bargaining chip.
Tim Moncur, Triad’s president, said he and his colleagues are proud of their single-chip, triaxial MEMS sensor, which can measure acceleration in three directions at the same time. But he said the Minneapolis startup has made hundreds of them primarily to pitch its process — a potentially better way to make MEMS that offer smaller, faster, better and cheaper solutions.
“MEMS is about manufacturing — not about all the cool little things, like putting it in Palm Pilots,” said Moncur, whose company just emerged from self-imposed stealth since forming in 2000. “It’s a manufacturing method. We started with that premise.”
The end result, Moncur said, is a new process dubbed Kaleidoscope, a manufacturing process that combines existing micromachining methods with thin-film materials and improved packaging techniques that he said boosts strength, performance and production of a wide range of MEMS devices.
Triad is trying to serve a field that has many different production methods, but no set standard. It’s doing this by touting the Kaleidescope process as a way to make many different microdevices with a common approach in existing foundries.
“The last thing this industry needs is another process, but on the other hand, if this is something that can put us on the path to a standard process or can be utilized as a standard process by a lot of people, then they’re onto something,” said Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst with In-Stat/MDR.
No deals have yet been struck but Moncur and his team have met with several companies. He fully expects skepticism but so far most have at least seen the potential of the process.
“There’s a big hole in the MEMS world,” he said. “The MEMS world is going to be bigger than air bag accelerometers, ink jet nozzles. We assert one of the first things that has to happen is working on materials and processes. That maintains the spirit of MEMS, through bulk manufacturing and low cost.”
Triad, whose technology is based in part on work done at the University of Minnesota, combines elements of two major MEMS fabrication processes: bulk micromachining’s etching techniques and surface micromachining’s approach of depositing materials to create patterns, then removing the sacrificial layer.
But what sets it apart from many other MEMS is the use of piezoelectric thin film materials, which allow electrical activation of moving parts. The materials are widely used in applications such as mobile phones, push-button cigarette lighters and gas grills, but few have managed to make them work in MEMS.
“Because it’s thin film, we can pattern it in any shape we want,” said Peter Schiller, Triad’s chief executive and chief technical officer. “It simply gives us far more options for configuration and increased performance.”
Chris Lumb, president and chief executive of Micralyne Inc., a MEMS foundry services firm, said what makes Triad’s process intriguing is its use of piezoelectric materials.
“Piezoelectric materials have been around a long time … but it’s been difficult in the past to put (them) down in crystalline form,” Lumb said. “If they can, it could have good properties to make sensors and actuators.”
Lumb said Triad isn’t alone among small tech firms seeking a new process. He cited Fluidigm, a San Francisco-area microfluidic device maker that has based its technology on configurable pumps and valves.
“The challenge for these companies is once they have a process, they have to find applications that it’s really suited to. In some cases they’re readily apparent, other cases they’re not,” he said. “You can’t really put it to use until you find the perfect application.
“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to MEMS, but what (Triad is) doing is very interesting.”
MEMS pioneer Ken Gabriel agreed. The co-founder of the MEMS Industry Group, as well as co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer of Pittsburgh-based Akustica Inc., said he supports Moncur’s view that the industry’s focus should be placed on the process of making MEMS.
Akustica, a MEMS-based startup focusing on acoustic technology, differentiates itself from its competitors by using standard CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) chips. That means Akustica’s chips can be made in any of the world’s CMOS foundries, which should lower costs, and boost reliability, quality and durability.
“I absolutely applaud the standardization of a manufacturing process,” said Gabriel, but he cautioned against casting too wide a net and losing focus on individual applications.
Bourne said the industry has matured to the point that it ought to consider potential improvements on existing methods.
“It’s feasible that this could be just as disruptive to MEMS as MEMS is to other things. I guess time will tell.”
Moncur would like that. Still, at this point he isn’t talking revolution — just evolution.
“A single process is not what it’s going to take, but you gotta start somewhere,” he said. “We think we’ve got a good, solid workable manufacturing process that by its nature allows you to push performance levels of existing products.
“I think we’re the next step. … We’re not the end of the story.”
Moncur said Triad is privately funded by its founders, friends and family. He declined to reveal how much money it has in the bank, but said the burn rate is slow and he sees no immediate threat of the well running dry.
“As a startup, unless you’ve got the big checks, money-raising is an ongoing thing — it never really stops,” he said. “Our development — or at least this portion of it — is done. The money we’re spending now is moving into marketing phase.”