Southeast France plants seeds for a fertile small tech future

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GRENOBLE, France, Nov. 11, 2003 — With the recent launch of a MEMS fab in Crolles, near Grenoble, the southeast of France is beginning to look more like the French version Silicon Valley.

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Tronic’s Microsystems’ new facility will start producing custom-made MEMS later this year and will allow the company to quadruple its production capacity, said CEO Peter Pfluger.

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“We will dare to affirm ourselves as world leader, we will dare to conquer international markets and we will dare to resist to trends and fashions in this industry,” Pfluger said.

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Tronic’s move to the small town of Crolles, about 12 miles from Grenoble, and a 13,500-square-foot facility helps to bolster this region’s leading role in France’s micro- and nanoelectronics industry. Tronic’s is now a close neighbor to STMicroelectronics NV, Motorola Inc. and Royal Philips Electronics, and most other MEMS fabs in France, including MEMSCAP SA and PHS MEMS.

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Until last week, the company and its 44 employees were harbored at CEA-LETI, a major government lab that has pioneered MEMS research. Most microelectronics startups in or near Grenoble have been founded by former LETI researchers, or have taken their core technology from the institution.

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“LETI has been the source of the unique core of microelectronics companies we have in this region. I don’t know of any equivalent, anywhere in the world,” said Jean-Christophe Eloy, founder and chief executive of Yole Developpement, a marketing and technology consulting company specializing in semiconductors and MEMS.

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Jean Therme, director of CEA’s technological research division, said LETI’s role as a government institution is to “provide the elementary bricks” to companies that can transform them into working technology. “No company can afford to spend 10 years or more in research, which is the time the LETI has been working on MEMS. But a research lab needs the ‘reality check’ provided by companies when they design, test and industrialize commercial products. It’s clearly a win-win situation.”

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Another winner for the region will be the expected fall 2005 opening of the Minatec Center for Innovation in Micro and Nano Technology. Situated at the gates of Grenoble, Minatec is still a work in progress, at least as far as the buildings are concerned. But research over there is already “up and running” in temporary quarters, Therme said.

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“Considering the incredibly excellent reactions we have received from everywhere in the world, we can say that the first part of the bet has been won. Minatec’s image and concept are already a success,” said Therme, who is considered the father of the Minatec project.

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Until Minatec opens, Tronic’s Microsystems’ goal is to become a leader in this fertile valley. Pfluger said that the company’s turnover this year should be about $3 million, a 50 percent increase over last year, He added that he is confident the company will reach revenues in the range of $5 million next year and break even in 2005.

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