Japan bullish on startups, with shared development models

By Paula Doe, Contributing Editor

Judging from the jump in recent stories in the Japanese trade press, Japan is starting to look like a hotbed of semiconductor equipment and materials startups.

Not only are Japanese venture capitalists investing in new suppliers, but even some provincial governments are, too. And university researchers are putting together groups of companies to commercialize their technologies. But what may be most interesting about this month’s news is how widely these development costs — and risks and returns — are being spread.

Some of this is venture capital on the cheap, spreading even relatively small investments out among a crowd of firms. Semi Technologies, Ibaraki, raised a little under $5 million (500 million yen) combined for its new cleaning tool, from seven venture capital firms, including Jasco, ORIX Capital and Mizuho Capital — and Ibaraki Prefecture’s venture development fund.

It will use the money to start pilot production, build a showroom, and move to direct sales of its low-cost cleaning equipment, which uses ozonated water instead of chemicals. The company targets sales of about $10 million this year, $25 million next, reports the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

It also took seven venture capital firms, lead by CSK Venture Capital, to come up with $4.4 million (450 million yen) to fund IIS Material. The company, formed by researchers from Tokyo University, plans to build a plant to reprocess silicon wafer makers’ waste into silicon that can be used for solar cells. The plan is to capitalize on the shortage of polysilicon by collecting unused ingot ends and defective wafers, then re-melting them at 2000C by e-beam to vaporize impurities.

IIS researchers say the quality of the reprocessed silicon is good enough for solar cells now, and they’re working on getting it to levels suitable for semiconductor wafers, no longer so much different. The venture will build a reprocessing plant in Chiba by the end of this year, with capacity of reprocessing 70 tons of silicon a year, then start sales by mid 2006. Target is first year sales of roughly $1 million, according to the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun.

Meanwhile, Ibit, in Kawasaki, funded by NIF Ventures and Jasco, is introducing automated in-line x-ray inspection equipment that checks chips’ solder attachment to the substrate, says the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun. All units are run through the tool in production, where a 1.4 million pixel CCD camera captures the x-ray image. Software converts the x-ray data to a 3D graphic of the solder condition, and then judges if the chip is properly attached. The company aims to sell 10 units the first year, at some $175,000 (18 million yen) each. Ibit took in some $580,000 (60 million yen) last year from sales of its initial non-automated x-ray inspection tool.

Osaka University researchers have lined up a whole chain of companies to produce substrates with down to10 micron patterns using a combination of imprinting and ink jet printing technology. The technology, described at the recent Venture Fair Japan 2005 covered by Pennwell partner Nikkei Microdevices Online, involves making a fine pattern of ridges on a metal mold, then forming a plastic subtrate in the mold, transferring the pattern as grooves. Conductive ink is then ink-jet printed into the pattern, where it makes high-aspect ration circuits without the usual problems with spreading.

But equally interesting is the plan to start contract production of such substrates next year with a big group of corporate partners. Yamamoto Optics and Osaka Seisakusho are lined up to make the mold, Fujikin to do the transfer, Cluster Technologies for the ink jet ink and printing, and C. Itoh to take charge of the marketing.

Over at Tohoku University as well, researchers have lined up a group of chemical companies to move their technology for growing larger GaN crystals into production next year, as well as government funding, reports the Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun. The technology adds ammonia to the gallium melt and processes it at high heat and temperature. The aim is to move in into commercial production of 1-inch ingots by 2006, two inch within five years, for blue lasers for next generation DVDs and displays. The Tohoku U. researchers are working with Mitsubishi Chemical, Tokyo Dempa, Japan Steel Works, Nippon Kasei Chemical, and Furuya Metal.

Some local government funding is also going to support established companies’ research. Resist supplier Tokyo Ohka will get some $13 million, or support of about 15% of the total $86 (8.9 billion yen) cost of its new research center from its local prefectural government, according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The six-story lab is slated to be completed in December.

Fujitsu uses silica nanoclusters in porous low-k for 65nm

Maybe nanotechnology is going to solve even the low-k problem. Fujitsu is showing off 65nm test chips using a porous low-k dielectric with a k value of 2.3 and reasonable mechanical strength (modulus of 10GPa), thanks to very small pores made with nanoclusters of silica, according to Pennwell partner Nikkei Microdevices’ online news. The company aims to complete development by midyear, and start production in 2006.

The microprocessor in development uses this spin-on nanoporous dielectric in the bottom five of its eleven copper layers, with SiOC for the rest. Fujitsu says gate delay is 25-40% below that of its 90nm devices. Gate length is 30nm, SiON gate dielectric thickness 0.9nm.

The nanoclustering silica was developed with the Catalysts and Chemicals Industry.


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