MEMS Investor Journal: How has the MEMS industry changed over the years? What are the main differences now as opposed to ten years ago?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: Clearly one of the biggest changes in the MEMS industry over the past 25 years are the hugely increasing market sizes which the technology is penetrating. Early in its history, the industry focused on aerospace, industrial, and military, then moved to medical, then to automotive, and now to consumer. Each of these new markets required an order of magnitude increase in volumes of devices. This increase in shipped volumes has had much more of an impact on the industry than simply "more wafers".
Such high volumes have also forced substantial improvements in design methodology, quality, reliability, packaging, and test, thereby significantly maturing the technology as well as the technologists. Today, there is a much stricter and more sophisticated discipline which goes into the design and manufacturing of a MEMS product, another sign of maturity for the technology.
MEMS Investor Journal: What do you see at the top three trends right now in the MEMS marketplace? Which applications offer the most promise for the future?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: A major, broad trend I see is the incorporation of packaging in the original design of the MEMS part. We used to see so much of the very unsophisticated approach – "lets bond a glass or silicon cap" over the active MEMS element. Now, companies such as SiTime, WiSpry, InvenSense and others are dramatically simplifying back-end assembly by packaging at the wafer level and sometimes using the CMOS chip as an active part of the package. This is a great trend which hugely impacts yield, performance, cost, and reliability.
Another major, broad trend I see is the integration of multiple sensors and MEMS devices in the same chip and/or package. In these days of increased integration and consolidation of various CMOS functions in the same chip, it is inevitable that MEMS will also undergo a lot of integration. For example, 3-axis accelerometers are routinely built on the same chip. Gyroscopes are not far behind. And, accelerometers plus gyros on the same chip are also close at hand. What about microphones and ambient pressure sensors? What about oscillators and RF filters?
On the other hand, in the near term, I see only a gradual degree of progress toward the full integration of MEMS and CMOS. While this integration will eventually happen, it is so (!) easy and cost effective to pick-and-place two chips in the same package. The ability to design the MEMS device completely independently of the CMOS circuit also provides incredible design flexibility, reduced cost, and easy product updates. Even InvenSense basically practices a two-chip approach, with the 90% of MEMS function being built on a wafer separate from the CMOS wafer.
MEMS Investor Journal: Energy harvesting is a hot topic these days. What are your thoughts about it? Are there really some “killer apps” for it?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: I do believe that energy harvesting will be a huge, successful field. Certainly there are many killer apps related to energy harvesting, including security sensors, distributed automobile sensors (e.g. tires and others), environmental sensors, etc. However, I also believe that we should not be married to MEMS alone for such energy harvesting applications. MEMS are typically small devices. Energy harvesting is somewhat proportional to mass and/or area. As in all potential MEMS devices, it is necessary that the need fits the device. That is, very small power generation requirements might be satisfied by MEMS devices, while larger power generation requirements might be satisfied by "bulk" devices. I have always been agnostic to "MEMS". MEMS is not the goal; the solution to the problem is the goal.
MEMS Investor Journal: What’s your advice for venture capitalists investing in MEMS technology companies? What should they look out for?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: Oh boy, I could talk all day about VCs. Venture capitalism, as we have learned to understand it in recent years, must change. They have become enamored by successful software and internet investments which have low capital requirements and potentially rapid returns. However, true successes in software and internet are few and far between. In contrast, hardware and biotech companies require much more capital and take a minimum of 7 years before realizing a return. My advice to VCs is to perform much more intelligent and rigorous due diligence on potential software, biotech, and hardware investments. I'm sorry, but typical VC due diligence today is incredibly weak. They will usually talk a lot about due diligence, but actual decisions are mostly based on previous personal relationships and "gut" feelings. A standard VC model is to hop on a "band-wagon" without really learning intimately about the technology, the physics of the technology, the market, and the team. At SiTime, we got traction from the VC community in the B and C rounds because now there was a "MEMS oscillator space", that is, Discera, SiTime, Silicon Clocks. The actual details of an individual company's technology, team and true capabilities often seem to be irrelevant.
MEMS Investor Journal: What advice do you have for emerging MEMS companies and their founders? What are the top three reasons why MEMS companies fail?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: The reasons why most MEMS companies fail is either because of a mismatch between the technology and the market, or because the chosen technology is too incremental over the entrenched competition, or because the chosen market is too small, or because the company development efforts are not sufficiently focused. What is a mismatch? For a company to be successful, every aspect of the technology and the market needs to be primed and synchronized for true success.
Cepheid, which sells rapid DNA diagnostic systems and tests, was successful because the bio world had just began enthusiastically producing DNA data at a rapid rate on a huge variety of organisms. In addition, no one in this market had yet automated the expensive and complex steps involved in sample preparation, which separates DNA, for analysis, from the rest of the crude biological specimen. So, 1) the market was primed for DNA detection and 2) a powerful, competitive, and differentiating sample prep technology was developed by Cepheid.
Another example is InvenSense – they were certainly not the first company to sell gyroscopes as many other suppliers 3-4 years ago were building gyros for the automotive market; however, these other suppliers had a high cost structure which reflected this market. InvenSense invented a very low cost fabrication process and became successful in the emerging consumer market. So, 1) the consumer market was ready to use low-cost gyros while the competition could not meet that cost and 2) a competitive and low-cost fabrication technology was developed by InvenSense.
Another key reason that MEMS companies fail is because many founders do not properly appreciate the major obstacles to getting into production. Or, they may not properly value the unique skills required to transfer a device into production. This is one of my pet peeves. Simply demonstrating that "first" MEMS device is trivial, compared to moving that device into high quality production. MEMS researchers who mostly start new companies, often do not properly value the quality and operations skills which are absolutely necessary to make any company successful.
MEMS Investor Journal: What are the top three MEMS startup companies that you believe have the highest chances of success?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: Being a founder, I'm sort of obligated to put SiTime in this category. However, I do honestly believe that SiTime will be a smashing success. The resonator chip is very small, less than 0.5 square millimeters. Therefore, in large quantities, it is amazingly inexpensive. The single crystal silicon resonator is exceptionally stable, <0.1 ppm/year. The packaged resonator is completely uneffected by packaging or PCB stresses. Manufacturing yields of these devices is extremely high, more than 95%. New ways of doing temperature compensation are now dramatically reducing the already low jitter or phase noise. New technologies and products really take off and begin to eliminate the competition only when the timing is right. After 40 years of trial and error in the history of MEMS resonators, the time is now finally just right. SiTime has spent the past 2 years building an all important history of reliability. When your new product sells for much less than $1 and has a well-entrenched competition, customers will not risk using your product unless there is a long history of reliability and quality. To date, after over 20 million parts shipped, SiTime has seen zero MEMS failures. This is the most obvious fact that will assure success for SiTime.
A second company I am convinced will be successful is WiSpry. Again, this company has a product which is perfectly synchronized to the market and the market is primed. As cell phones and other RF systems evolve, more and more frequency bands will be incorporated into the same module. The ability to tune a single antenna to many different transmit and receive frequencies, by the use of the WiSpry variable capacitor array, will add a huge value to the overall product.
Last, but not least, the Qualcomm Mirasol display technology, arising from the startup company, Iridigm, which was acquired by Qualcomm in 2005, is a stunning development which is set to transform the portable electronics industry. As tablet, e-book type devices, and other portable electronic devices become ubiquitous and incorporate more and more internet, communication, and computer functionity, the importance of overall system power will continue to grow dramatically. A Mirasol display can use 1/1000 of the power of an LCD display. A Mirasol display can be easily viewed in a bright environment. The power saved and the smaller size of the battery required in such devices will be able to provide more capabilities to the electronics, which are the heart of these portable devices. With over 10 million MEMS elements in a single tablet display, I am confident in the success of this Mirasol technology.
MEMS Investor Journal: What are some of the most interesting MEMS based products that you’ve seen recently?
Dr. Kurt Petersen: Typically, the latest new MEMS technologies do not appear on market studies. For example, prior to about 2006-7, oscillators were not at all predicted in these studies. So, first of all, I do not look to these studies to find the next breakthrough product areas.
Probably the (!) most exciting future area is implantable electronic and MEMS devices (not yet in market studies). In place for a number of years, cochlear impants (which are really MEMS devices) are actually allowing deaf people to hear! New MEMS versions of these devices are increasing the functionailty and the quality of the sounds perceived. The next stupendous electronics and MEMS development is the artificial retina. Even today, the earliest prototypes are actually allowing blind people to see! These developments, which are true MEMS devices, are incredibly exciting.
Other sensing devices currently on the market are the implantable pressure sensors produced, for example, by CardioMEMS. Close on the horizon are wireless, implantable chemical sensors, made using MEMS techniques. When these devices are finally successful, an entirely new era in human healthcare will emerge. These are the most new impressive interesting new products which I have seen.
Kurt Petersen received his BS degree cum laude in EE from UC Berkeley in 1970. In 1975, he received a PhD in EE from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Petersen established a micromachining research group at IBM from 1975 to 1982, during which he wrote the review paper “Silicon as a Mechanical Material,” published in the IEEE Proceedings (May 1982). This paper is still the most frequently referenced work in the field of micromachining and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS).
Since 1982, Dr. Petersen has co-founded five successful companies in MEMS technology, Transensory Devices Inc. in 1982, NovaSensor in 1985 (now owned by GE), Cepheid in 1996 (now a public company on NASDAQ: CPHD), SiTime in 2004, and Verreon in 2009 (acquired by Qualcomm). All of these companies have become technical and commercial leaders in the field of MEMS devices and applications.
Dr. Petersen has published over 100 papers, and has been granted over 35 patents in the field of MEMS. In 2001 he was awarded the IEEE Simon Ramo Medal for his contributions to MEMS. Dr. Petersen is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow of the IEEE in recognition of his contributions to “the commercialization of MEMS technology”.
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