COMS 2004 kicks off with upbeat look at state of industry

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EDMONTON, Alberta, Sept. 2, 2004 – Delegates to COMS 2004 found out that, while killer MEMS applications remain an elusive target, a thriving nano/MEMS community continues to grow. Further, venture capitalists are keeping the sector on their radar screens.

With more than 320 delegates registered at the annual Commercialization of Micro and Nano Systems Conference (COMS), held this year in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, those in attendance were told that small-tech gold isn’t totally out of reach.

An Australian success story illustrated how one of the country’s Cooperative Research Centers (CRC) has been able to use micro devices to assist national Olympic aspirations. More importantly, the CRC managed to turn out a commercially viable product.

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At the same time, IntelliSense Software Corp., based in Woburn, Mass., announced it had formed a strategic alliance with New York’s Infotonics Technology Center. The goal is to lower entry barriers into the MEMS marketplace.

Those developments came as COMS 2004 kicked off with a look at the state of the industry.

In the fast-paced nano/MEMS field, companies have to find their position and strategy if they’re going to succeed, said Kees Eijkel, president Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF). Eijkel added that there is also a need to work together and learn from each other if progress is to be made.

Arthur Carty, National Science Advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, echoed the words. Carty stressed that the sector’s traditional “first to the post” model needs to be replaced with one where emerging innovation research is shared in order to bolster the entire field.

On the venture capital side, the atmosphere was described as “very healthy and very friendly to small tech,” according to Alexander Wong, a partner with California-based Apax Partners. Based on his experience, he said people are investing in small tech “because it’s the next big thing.”

Even though high-risk levels are still associated with nano/MEMS investments, Wong said the bigger issue is the “valley of death” where companies falter after what appears to be a promising startup phase. “It is unclear if (some of these) nanotech ideas will have customer pull. We need to find nanotech products that have pull,” said Wong.

Also expressing concern about risk was COMS 2004 co-chair Chris Lumb, president of Edmonton’s Micralyne, a successful MEMS developer and manufacturer.

“Just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. It’s not easy to make money,” said Lumb. “I don’t mean to sound negative. We believe in the future. There are many niche applications that will drive the industry and our growth (Micralyne) has come from niche applications.”

The bursting of telecom’s optical bubble did leave a sour taste with end users, said Lumb. “There’s a real reluctance as they got burned a couple of years ago.”

To counter this, Lumb stressed that developments must lead to manufacturing and emphasized that the focus must be placed on customers, not just investment dollars.

Meanwhile, he said companies should not count on industry growth to meet the rosy expectations offered by some analysts. “Directionally, the analysts are correct, but their hard numbers are incorrect.”

Hard numbers at the first COMS conference in 1994, also held in Alberta but at the mountain resort town of Banff, called for a MEMS industry valued at $8 billion by the year 2000. In 2002, though, MEMS sales were under $4 billion.

One attempt to boost those figures is coming from Australia’s CRC model, where researchers, government departments and agencies, along with business, have come together to form some 70 such entities that are partially funded by federal government dollars.

The country’s CRC for micro technology, with programs covering fabrication technology, micro device packaging and systems integration or small smart systems, safety and health microsystems, and microfluidics, has done more than just assist Australia’s Olympic hopes.

With a $64-million budget over its seven-year lifespan, this CRC used small devices to monitor athletes’ rowing performances. Tiny sensors were placed on the boats and rowers’ bodies. Data was relayed back to coaches and results were used to improve velocity.

In its fifth year of operation, this CRC includes the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport.

Prior to the Olympics, the devices were deployed at the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, and a variation of that information went directly to Swiss TV for broadcast of the boat’s performance live to the public.

Gold was struck twice as Australia came in first in the Men’s Quad Skull while the broadcast application was successful as well. After that, Australia snagged gold, silver and bronze rowing medals in Athens at the Olympics last month.

While Clive Davenport, CEO of the micro technology CRC, didn’t come out and say that the devices were responsible for the Olympic success, he noted that initial trial runs showed the devices fine-tuned the rowers’ performance by improving their sporting technique.

An agreement with the AIS meant this monitoring technology could not be rolled out until after Athens. Now media and broadcast applications are being actively pursued while pushes will be made into the elite athlete and coaching market as well as versions for amateur athletes and consumers.

Nor will Australia rest on its success so far, said Davenport. A new micro-nanotech CRC to start in 2005 will look at using this technology as a starting to point to boost performance levels in other sports such as cycling and rugby.

The other MEMS announcement at COMS 2004 sees IntelliSense linking up with Infotonics. “Our alliance with Infotonics is aimed with providing companies across the United States with a total market solution at a low cost,” IntelliSense CEO Sandeep Akkaraju said in a press release.

Together, the two companies will offer a range that includes IntelliSense’s CAD/Design tools and Photonics’ MEMS chip fabrication, packaging, testing and pilot line manufacturing.

Just as importantly, added Robert Andosca, IntelliSense’s director of business development, the companies are working on an educational component, initially to be housed at Photonics, to teach and promote MEMS courses at the undergraduate level. The goal is to start the courses in January 2005 and roll them out into the New York state school system, said Andosca.


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