Companies put their MEMS together to drum up more customers

Jan. 9, 2003 — Four businesses have struck a partnership to offer unified MEMS product development, an effort to jump-start broader industrial interest in microtechnology.

The Generics Group, a product development firm based in England, crafted the deal with Coventor Inc., Epigem Ltd. and LioniX BV. Generics is the titular head of the partnership, called “MST-charged.” (MST is the acronym used in Europe for MEMS.)

Peter Laitenberger, the Generics executive in charge of the partnership, said its main goal is to give customers an easier way to integrate MEMS into their various products. Generics and its partners hope to combine the design skills of Generics and Coventor with the fabrication resources of Epigem and LioniX so that customers can design MEMS-based products and then produce small amounts of prototypes to see how the idea actually works.

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“It’s difficult to find a company that can prototype a small number. … Both [LioniX and Epigem] offer us that capability,” Laitenberger said.

Retooling a chip fabrication plant to produce MEMS devices is often costly, so many fabs that produce MEMS prefer to work with large customer orders rather than a few prototype devices. That, Laitenberger said, has prompted companies interested in MEMS to pursue more traditional technologies that can result in a functioning product more quickly.

“At the moment … not many microsystems actually make it through to market,” Laitenberger said. “People just want a solution to their problem, whether it’s MST or not.”

Epigem was selected for its expertise in polymer-based electronics, which Laitenberger believes will play an increasingly important role in medical equipment. LioniX, based in the Netherlands, has expertise in optics and microfluidics, and has various clean room facilities suitable for small-scale fabrication. Coventor is known for its design software and MEMS-based RF switches.

Hans van den Vlekkert, chief executive of LioniX, said the partnership should be attractive to customers because they will no longer have to find separate design, development and fab experts on their own. “The alliance is a one-shop solution for companies looking for a complete MST solution for their products. … It offers more than each individual partner could provide,” he said.

Any improved deal flow from customers would also give Generics a much-needed financial boost; for the first six months of fiscal 2002, the company reported an operating loss of $13.5 million, compared to $9.2 million the year before. The other three companies are privately held.

But while the partnership seems sensible in theory, the real challenge for the four companies is to convince customers that MEMS are a worthwhile endeavor. Today’s economic reality, analysts say, is that even with one-stop shopping, businesses simply don’t want to do much shopping.

“I think the strategy is good; the problem is that the climate is very poor,” said Eric Gulliksen, a MEMS analyst at Venture Development Corp. in Natick, Mass. “People don’t want to do any design work that they don’t have to.” Gulliksen granted that MEMS technology has won over manufacturers in some niches, such as accelerometers and ink-jet nozzles. But, he said, “there are not a lot of those niches running around.”

Chris Lumb, chief executive of Micralyne Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta, which also offers MEMS design and prototyping, agreed that a single point of contact “is hugely important to customers.”

“It takes a lot of different inputs” to develop MEMS product ready for mass manufacture, Lumb said. “For a single company to do that is a difficult proposition.” Lumb also said access to a small-scale fabrication plant to turn out small numbers of prototype MEMS products is crucial. Giants like Intel, Honeywell or Texas Instruments can churn out MEMS easily, he said, “but they’re not interested in anything unless it’s in large numbers.”


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