Dec. 23, 2002 — With an experienced management team and a manufacturing deal both put in place this past summer, Microlab Inc. plans to go to market with its electromagnetic radio frequency (RF) MEMS switch early in 2003.
Some challenges still remain, including a bid to close the company’s last round of funding this year. “Raising money is a challenge in this environment,” admits Bill Sheppard, the company’s new chief executive. A high-tech veteran who came to Microlab after stints as chief executive and president at Micro Photonix Integration and as a vice president at Intel Corp., Sheppard believes Microlab’s core technology will be the funding clincher. “We’re a disruptive technology, a new approach with better performance and lower cost.”
That technology, developed by founder and former CEO Jun Chen, is an electromagnetic RF MEMS switch. Other types of RF MEMS switches, such as an electrostatic design, require a constant charge to stay open or closed. Once electromagnetic force opens or closes Microlab’s MagLatch switch, it stays that way without consuming additional power.
The technology’s market potential proved attractive enough that a group of investors, including EnTrust Capital Frontier Fund LP and Next State LLC, provided $5.5 million to Microlab in May 2001.
“This technology has legs,” Sheppard said, adding that it will propel an aggressive marketing plan to make the company profitable. The company’s assets include the product, the manufacturing technology and “a very capable engineering team” assembled by Ph.D. scientists Shen, now Microlab’s chief technology officer, and Charles Wheeler, co-founder and executive vice president.
In September, Microlab and PHS MEMS of Grenoble, France, announced a partnership to begin volume production of the switch at the French foundry in early 2003. Meanwhile, beta testing continues among 12 customers (including Teledyne, Agilent Technologies Inc. and Matsushita) in two key vertical markets for high performance switching: ATE, or automated test equipment used to check the signal integrity of semiconductors, and wireless, which includes cell phones and wireless LAN applications.
Asked whether the electromagnetic RF switch’s advantages are as clear as Microlab management believes, Marlene Bourne, a senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR, says, “It’s really hard to tell. I believe it’s going to have advantages over the electrostatic switch in some applications because of its low power usage and durability.”
Coupled with its hair’s breadth size, the switch’s low power consumption and durability makes it a natural for next-generation wireless devices that will swallow more juice as they provide more functions to the end users, Bourne and Sheppard agree.
Low-power components will be desirable because “designers are really looking for ways to increase battery life,” Sheppard said.
However, Bourne said, the wireless market waits down the road perhaps a year or two. “[Wireless] is really the primary market for them, but it’s not a near-term market per se. Automated test equipment will be first out of the gate because it can support higher prices.”
The primary market, though, offers a much higher ceiling, says new company President Ben Naskar, who previously served in senior management of semiconductor businesses such as Analog Devices and National Semiconductor.
Pointing to the number of wireless devices already in the hands of consumers, Naskar expects the market to grow exponentially. “Digital everything is going wireless and in every one of those applications a high-performance switch will be required.”
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Jun Shen and Charles Wheeler founded Microlab (which incorporated in May 2001) after development of the core technology in Shen’s research group at Arizona State University.
Electronic components for wireless communication
Small tech-related products and services
Microlab has developed a micromagnetic radio-frequency (RF) switch called MagLatch, and hopes to launch volume production early in 2003. The use of RF MEMS aids wireless performance while reducing power usage and application complexity. Microlab’s MagLatch switch uses magnetic force to open or close a circuit. This allows the switch to remain either open or closed without energy consumption. MagLatch requires only a low-level energy pulse to alternate between open and closed positions.
Selected strategic partners and customers
In September 2002, Microlab announced a partnership with PHS MEMS of Grenoble, France, which will manufacture the RF MEMS switches.
VentureSource reports that Microlab closed a $5.5 million round in May 2001. Participants included: Copernicus Capital Partners, EnTrust Capital and Next Stage LLC. Also, the company is seeking new funding of $10 to $12 million, with the round expected to close in the first quarter of 2003.
Barriers to market
RF MEMS products will need to reduce their cost before they will be feasible in certain markets. Market entry may also be delayed because of adjustments that must be made to wireless devices to incorporate RF MEMS switches.
In the short term, management is focused on raising its final round of funds in the fourth quarter of 2002 and ramping up volume production in the first quarter of 2003. In the long term, the company seeks to develop new generations of RF-related products by further reducing their size, power consumption and cost.
Why they’re in small tech
“I spent nearly two decades in the semiconductor industry on an 18-year ride beginning with the PC revolution in the early ’80s and watched … as large, bulky computers became faster and smaller and drove the price down. I think the next explosion in technology is in MEMS,” says CEO Bill Sheppard. What keeps them up at night: “The challenge to continue to drive increased performance in our design and continue to drive the cost of the device down,” Sheppard says.
Though Microlab is the only company developing an electromagnetically based RF MEMS switch, Teravicta Technologies Inc. is working on an electrostatic RF MEMS switch that would be offered in similar markets.
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Microlab going mobile with RF MEMS switch
Wireless MEMS are loud and clear while telecom suffers static
— Research by Gretchen McNeely