By Jeff Karoub
Small Times Staff Writer

July 27, 2001 — A new company hopes its small technology will dial up the performance of cell phones and other wireless devices while driving down the cost and size.

Discera Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., will


“This is a technology
that will make a huge
impact in the wireless
Dr. Clark Nguyen,
Founder of Discera Inc.
develop microsystems technology that will replace and reduce parts needed in hand-held devices, with the intention one day of integrating all electronics and mechanics onto a single chip.

Company officials say that could take the technology out of people’s hands entirely, paving the way for “Dick Tracy”-style wrist phone and Internet devices, or a distributed sensor network in a farmer’s field that monitors how the weather and fertilizer affect crops.

The company’s founder and vice president is Dr. Clark Nguyen, associate professor in the University of Michigan’s (U-M) Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Nguyen developed the technology used by Discera at Michigan and while getting his doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

The company’s lead investor is Ardesta LLC in Ann Arbor. Ardesta’s goal is to accelerate the microsystems industry by providing financial and administrative support to emerging companies. Ardesta is the parent company of Small Times Media.

Vinay Gupta, president of Ardesta’s Midwest companies, will serve as Discera’s president. Gupta co-founded Bluegill Technologies in Ann Arbor in 1996 and most recently served as vice president of operations of Checkfree i-Solutions.

Nguyen said that wireless device makers use transistors to perform much of the work because today’s mechanical components increase size and cost. But a price is paid in performance because mechanical parts simply work better, he said.

By shrinking the mechanics to MEMS size, Nguyen said, you can add as many parts as you need without worrying about size. Micromechanical circuits can easily be linked to the existing system and perform more complex signal processing functions.

The specific technology involves micromechanical vibrating resonator devices, which he compared to a guitar string, but one shrunk down from 25 inches to 10 microns and made out of a polysilicon material, rather than metal.

The micro-string then is interlinked with another string, then another, until a network is built. That becomes a mechanical circuit that selects very high frequencies, such as those used by wireless devices.

Discera’s technology likely will make its debut inside a cell phone, but one that is smaller than those available today. The phone, which Nguyen expects to be available within four years, will not only shrink but also should be more durable and use less battery power. The phone also will contain more frequencies, allowing it to work in more places across the globe.

He said Discera will work with telecommunications firms to incorporate the technology, but he declined to discuss specific companies.

Nguyen said Discera is the first company he is aware of to take such technology and apply it to wireless communication devices. He credits his company’s progress to the pioneering engineering research at U-M.

“Everyone can see the potential, it’s just that the know-how is not widespread,” he said. “It’s focused, concentrated in Ann Arbor right now.”

Still, that is starting to change.

He did not name other companies, but research is under way. Recently, he said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Defense Department’s central research and development organization, invested $40 million in researching similar technology.

“I’ve given a lot of presentations (at) conferences,” he said. “The technology has been disseminated, at least in research form. People can’t help but look at the technology and be impressed by it – and understand that this is a technology that will make a huge impact in the wireless world.”

David Nagel, a research professor in MEMS and microsystems at George Washington University, said the technology appears sound and marketable, provided Discera can reach its goal of integrating its mechanics and electronics onto the same chip.

“Currently, what’s used in cell phones and most radios are separate quartz crystals,” he said. “If you can avoid all that by using another corner of a silicon chip, integration will reduce cost and either maintain or improve performance.”

Nagel said a well-developed micromechanical system from Discera could be coming at the right time.

“The field of RF (radio frequency) MEMS in general is poised for takeoff,” he said. “This is happening right in the middle of the wireless revolution.”

He said the system has even greater applications once it incorporates video.

“Look at our cortex,” he said. “The biggest part of the human brain is the optical part. We like to see things. That’s a real bandwidth hog. But we’re going to get it by miniaturization.”

Nguyen, who helped plan future communications technologies as part of a project for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration several years ago, said taking the technology out of the lab and discovering new ways to apply it for a communications-hungry world will be a new challenge for him.

That mission, he said, comes right out of the company’s name.

“The actual Latin word is ‘discere,’ which means to learn, to get to know,'” he said. “But if you look at the word ‘Discera,’ it can be (short for) ‘discovering a new era.’ It conjures up so many different directions.”

Clark will be a featured speaker at “Small Tech 2001: The Microsystems Advantage,” which will be held Sept. 18-21 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The event will bring together researchers, businesses and customers of the small tech industry, including MEMS, microsystems and nanotechnology.


Jeff Karoub at [email protected] or call 734-528-6291.


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