Not all dreams went up in smoke. Nine months on after fire devastated Innos and University of Southampton joint fab, David Ridsdale, EuroAsia Semiconductor speaks with Innos to discover how this led to unexpected opportunities.
The fire that took out the Mountbatten Building last October had a profound effect on the close knit technical community associated with the University of Southampton. This was reflected in the statement released by University officials.
With grants dependant on work being completed in the fab and a host of companies and interests depending on the site for their work it could have been a disaster that ended the microelectronics work being done in Southampton. As the University is located in the more affluent southern part of England it receives very little in government grants as the area is not classified as a needy area.
The Mountbatten Building, which opened in 1991, houses research laboratories and offices for the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), and the microelectronics fabrication facility operated by University spin-out company Innos. It is estimated that replacing both the building and the specialist equipment within it will cost in the region of £50m. As this is the initial estimate it can be expected to increase before the decision making process grinds through the University committee structure.
The microelectronics has been managed by research and development company, Innos on behalf of the University of Southampton and the fire created a series of challenges that led to some innovative solutions to meet the needs of all parties involved. Innos itself was a spinout of the University and now provides a structural and supportive bridge between academia and industry or ideas to product. Formerly known as the Silicon Fabrication Facility at the University of Southampton, Innos combines state-of-the-art technology capability with a team of over 30 engineers, technicians and scientists, all with expertise in applying nanoscale concepts to silicon-based devices. Innos was initially the national facility for microelectronic manufacturing funded by EPSRC (The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), the UK Government funding agency for research and training in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC funding decreased so the University of Southampton set up Innos as a limited company.
These types of institutions are vital to technology as they make it possible for small enterprises as well as individuals to enter a market that is impenetrable on their own. Turning IP into commercial product is what Innos do. They provide in-out technology transfer knowledge and are a yield ramp specialist ensuring product manufacturability is geared towards profitable yields. Innos may work with individuals in this process and take an inventor's idea and focus on Design for Manufacturing (DFM) to obtain yields for higher volume production. By providing a focus on manufacturability rather than potentialities, Innos is able to get a product to market, and to volume, extremely quickly with very few manufacturing difficulties that often pop up at some point through a manufacturing process. Normally near the end. This enables entry point with at least a proof of concept with less investment than other paths.
The DFM tools used by Innos are all designed in-house within the University structure giving the company direct access to the architects of the tools they use. Although the company is based in Southampton the service provided is not restricted to the area and Innos actively seeks out manufacturable ideas from a range of academic and industry based institutions and conferences across the UK.
The value of good networking
So how did Innos respond to the challenges following the potentially show stopping fire? With a little help from some friends actually.
Dr. Alec Reader's job title is sales and marketing manager of Innos. Like most people in smaller enterprises the title does not do justice to his efforts. As part of the Innos management team, Dr Reader is responsible for developing the success of Innos across commercial markets, placing it at the forefront of industrial R&D. Dr Reader is an experienced and well respected senior manager with over 20 years experience in the Semiconductor Industry. Dr Reader's previous management roles including Philips Analytical headquarters in The Netherlands and Head of Department at ST-Microelectronics in France. Dr Reader is a well known face in the European industry and has provided expertise into many industry and academic programmes across Europe. When he first began in the semiconductor industry he was an engineer at Philips in Eindhoven.
The semiconductor industry may have a long reach into the industry but basically is a medium sized community. Some of the outstanding contracts Innos was working on when the fire struck were time dependent in terms of grants and remuneration. Realizing they had to act quickly the Innos management began a rapid fire series of discussions, visits and agreements and within one month of the fire Innos announced that it had signed a partnership with Philips. The agreement provides Innos engineers with access to the Philips Microsystems Plaza (MiPlaza) R&D cleanroom facilities and services, at the high tech campus in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
It is not just any old campus they have done a deal with as Innos clients benefit from one of the most comprehensive tool-set and expertise available in the world. With 2650m_ of class 100- 10,000, MiPlaza provides an even greater array of tools and equipment so Innos is now able to handle substrates of any shape, in sizes up to 200 mm.
Philips Research Device Technology and Services Division Manager, Sep Bastiaens, commented at the time, "It is the aim of MiPlaza to provide shared use of research facilities and services for innovation leaders in the domains of Microsystems, nanotechnologies, bio and life sciences. As the UK's leading R&D company in this field, Innos is a perfect fit and they are warmly welcomed to the facility."
In addition to conventional silicon processing equipment, the cleanroom has a deep reactive ion etcher, an ion beam miller, a chemical mechanical polisher, low pressure epitaxy cluster tools, and an advanced sputtering unit. An atomic force microscope, an ellipsometer and a scanning electron microscope are available for measurements. In a separate laboratory, manual or automatic measurements can be carried out on devices and circuits. Computer-aided process, device and circuit simulation is available in a further laboratory.
The silver lining
Dr. Reader is happy to admit that without the fire Innos would not have had access to the Philips facility but the cooperation between the two companies has been so good that the MiPlaza is now a part of the future plans for Innos. Work is also taking place in parallel on plans to rebuild the Southampton fab to ensure that it meets research needs in the years to come. Having the Philips facility allows Innos some breathing space as the University makes decisions. A project team has been set up under DVC Professor Adam Wheeler to take forward the planning of new facilities. There has also been a great deal of discussions with insurance companies to begin acquiring equipment to replace that lost in the fire. This will be coordinated by the University Crisis Management Team.
Innos has been heavily involved in this process and there is now a three tiered plan in place leading to the new facility that Innos will continue to manage. The short term plan is the use of the Philips facility. Tech support functions remain at Southampton. The medium term response to the fire is to build a temporary clean room within five miles of current site until the new fab is built. This will be set up in a warehouse space with a view to maintain critical work in Southampton and specific work in Eindhoven as Philips has a greater range of tools. The long term response is to rebuild new fab on old site and take the opportunity to re-focus the fab towards nano manufacturing with an eye to the future defining three specific areas for growth being microfluidics, MEMS and nanotech.
The success of the fire response is already obvious with Innos announcing in January the first successful collaboration at Eindhoven less than three months after the fire. Even when Philips are not directly involved. Reader makes it clear that the environment encourages engineers to communicate and assist each other providing vital skills to both Innos and Philips. The Supergen consortium EPSRC funded project work that was completed demonstrated that it is possible to accurately pattern silicon wafers using e-beam direct write, with accuracies of a few tens of nanometres.
Innos works on 2-6 patented ideas at a time. Dr. Reader let slip that 2-3 more products can be expected by the end of 2006 and one of these will be a potentially disruptive invention. With the biggest success of Innos, Perpetuum going from strength to strength it will be worth the wait.