SVTC’s post-recession plans to expand services, widen tech reach

March 4, 2010 – During the industry downturn, SVTC Technologies — née Cypress Semiconductor’s Silicon Valley Technology Center, spun off in March 2007 with VC/private equity backing and combined with SEMATECH’s ATDF later that year — did what a lot of companies did: focused on tightening its financials and sales/marketing infrastructure.

But in the background a transition was being crafted, which once the recession lifted would help the company step forward into "a phase of much more focused and improved attention to customers, markets, technologies," according to Bert Bruggeman, newly appointed CEO, in an interview with Small Times.Click to Enlarge

Bruggeman, whose career path has winded from IMEC to Cypress Semiconductor, then a MEMS startup, and eventually SVTC Technologies, defines three key aspects within this new stage of growth:

Market-driven. Traditionally, the company’s facilities pedigree is for more classic CMOS-based technologies, but SVTC has strived to expand this, mainly leveraging MEMS (e.g. deep-silicon etch) — and now the company wants to more broadly leverage in MEMS, he says. The company also plans to widen the reach within its walls for more derivative technology migrations: e.g., device science to biosciences, "to go after in a more structures, organized way."

During the downturn SVTC acquired "quite a few companies as customers, at a rate that we had not been able to do before," Bruggeman noted, and as the industry climate improves he expects not only new business but also the breadth of customer interests to pick up rapidly. "We still see novel ideas, different technologies alongside more classic CMOS," he said, including "half a dozen PV-type engagements" exploring new materials and cell architectures. (Among them is Bloo Solar, with whom it will develop and commercialize "solar brush" thin-film solar module technology, which uses a 3D junction architecture and billions of tiny "bristles" to enable higher efficiency and an alleged 1.5-3× higher power output than current technologies.) He also expects to see (and will welcome) more activity in MEMS, and in life/biosciences applications (e.g. work on different substrates, development of drug delivery or diagnosis applications) which seek "capabilities such as 248nm and 193nm lithography to make next-generation devices."

Meanwhile, SVTC still wants to embrace its core competency in CMOS-based tech. "We believe the silicon platform is so rich — and maybe infinite — in terms of ideas and innovation," Bruggeman said. "We still see new ideas in transistors, in memories, in image sensors — it’s almost limitless. As those ideas come out of 4-in. and 6-in. environments, and need an 8-in. commercial platform, we’ll be there to bring value."

Service expansion. A core of the company’s business model since Day 1, Bruggeman said, has been to do development for customers, or provide the fab space/capabilities so they can do their own development, with pilot-level production (e.g., 1-2 to 4-5 lots/month). With this next growth phase, Bruggeman "wants to expand a little bit more," to expand pilot production though still keeping it low-volume (maybe a few hundred lots/month). That helps customers end up with more characterized, stable technologies and products, which will both help them eventually transition to SVTC’s higher-volume partners (e.g. TSMC — a "strong partner" but Bruggeman admitted that the company is also now "talking to a few other folks"), and better prepare them to get a foothold in their markets, he explained.

Two facets to SVTC’s business helped it in the recent economic upheaval: the financial advantage of "capex avoidance" for customers but still offer production, and develop in a more variable cost structure vs. a fixed cost structure, a key benefit for startups. "Those two very core basic financial values are extremely attractive in the new and changed economy, where people still want to innovate and have ideas," he said.

The company did manage to add significant capabilities in terms of technology during the downturn — though true to its message, these were key but not extravagant capex investments, "upgrades to migrate and make out existing toolbase more flexible," Bruggeman said. These included another 1-2 types of tools for MEMS; finalizing capabilities for amorphous-silicon (a-Si) work; expanded ALD capabilities; and ability to handle more materials (e.g. transparent substrates) and different precursors.

New ways to help customers. With the R&D work of the company and its customers characterized as "little-r and big-D," there is by definition and necessity a level of intimacy and confidence with SVTC and its customers, starting with the technology and product roadmap, which can lead to "very detailed intricacies of development and discoveries," Bruggeman explained. An offshoot of this is "a level of value and confidence and credibility" — which is something SVTC plans to leverage into a new business offering of management consulting. "We have great toolsets and engineers, and a tremendous amount of commercialization management expertise," he said, estimating key SVTC execs have done around two dozen technology platforms and technology transfers. "We want to wrap that up in a much higher offering…[to] bring the next lever of strategic value-add to customers’ executive management teams."

As an example, Bruggeman described a university spin-off that came to SVTC with "very unique technology" that it wanted to scale up to 8-in. wafer silicon processing, but their management was struggling with the methodologies to do that. So on "a very specific request" from that CEO, Bruggeman and a couple of other key SVTC execs began participating in defining the way the company would plan, execute, and monitor the transition from the university to SVTC, and then to an 8-in. platform. "That got us involved at a management level to put together a framework," he said.


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