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Startup brews 'perfect storm' for R&D

Posted: 19 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:fab in a lab? startup? new R&D process? chip design? Semicon West?

Intermolecular Inc. has unveiled at Semicon West 2007 a portfolio of technologies that it says can speed up lab-to-fab chip designs and processes. The approach, which could rein in runaway R&D costs and even allow the service to be outsourced, is just one of a host of initiatives being pitched to remake the chip industry's R&D model.

The startup says its High-Productivity Combinatorial (HPC) platform of "fab in a lab" technologies will facilitate R&D of IC materials, processes and device structures. The startup is offering a trio of programs.

One is a line of tools that brings the company into the semiconductor equipment business. The systems are not meant for the production line; rather, they are 300mm lab tools for R&D. The machines can be configured to support many critical fab processing stepssuch as cleaning, electroless deposition and surface preparationin a modular prototype system.

Other offerings
Intermolecular is also entering the intellectual property (IP) arena, a move that could put the startup on a collision course with the likes of Applied Materials, Lam Research, Novellus and Tokyo Electron Ltd. One of the startup's first IP offerings is a "molecular masking layer" for use in capping-layer applications at the 32nm node.

Finally, the company can develop processes and technologies for customers within its own clean-room facilities, said Intermolecular CEO David Lazovsky.

"New [R&D] processes and integration methods are required that could take several years" for the industry to develop, Lazovsky said. HPC "speeds R&D learning rates by orders of magnitude compared with conventional R&D methods."

Lazovsky insisted the startup is not competing against IC makers, tool vendors or R&D consortia such as Albany Nanotech, IMEC, Selete and Sematech. "We can work with them," he said.

Intermolecular is addressing what he called the "perfect storm" in semiconductor R&D. "R&D spending is running out of control," he said. "Our mission is to make R&D more productive."

Need for feasible models
While it remains to be seen whether Intermolecular's strategy will work, there is a crying need in the chip industry for feasible new R&D models.

"R&D budgets are being honed," said Robert Lineback, an analyst with IC Insights Inc. "More and more basic manufacturing technologies are being moved to consortia, universities and partnerships. It's still too early to know if these partnerships will hold together well enough to succeed at the 32nm node and beyond. But the pressure is much greater to make the partnerships work, since product designs can't be delayed or market windows will be missed."

Compounding the problem is the runaway cost of R&D, especially as a percentage of revenue. In 1978, total semiconductor R&D was $600 million, according to IC Insights. Intermolecular claims that figure had grown to $45 billion by 2006, and is expected to hit a whopping $100 billion in 2012.

Semiconductor revenue is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.5 percent from 2004 to 2020, according to VLSI Research Inc. But R&D spending will rise 12.2 percent on average in the same time frame, the research firm predicts.

IC design, process and equipment costs are the main culprits in R&D's rising tally. Process technology R&D costs alone are expected to jump from $2.4 billion at the 45nm node to $3 billion at 32nm, according to analysts.

For years, many chipmakers handled the bulk of their R&D efforts in-house. Starting in the mid-1980s, R&D consortia were launched to lessen the burden. Other R&D models have recently emerged. IBM Corp. formed a technology alliance with various chipmakers to offset R&D costs. More recently, silicon foundries have jumped into R&D.

One-stop shop

Now, specialty R&D service providers are entering the market. In June, SVTC Technologies Inc. debuted after being spun off from Cypress Semiconductor Inc. SVTC has a 200mm prototype plant and has rolled out a range of foundry-like services for lab-to-fab development of product ideas.

Also last month, three companies merged to form Nano Integrated Solutions Inc. The new venture intends to provide a one-stop shop of services, including testing, failure analysis, reliability qualification and board design.

Under yet another novel R&D model, Sematech's Advanced Technology Development Facility (ATDF) unit and Taiwan's United Microelectronics Corp. last week extended their existing collaboration. ATDF will assess feasibility and perform qualification testing for device startups. UMC then will review ATDF's test results to select potential manufacturing partners.

Last week, White Mountain Labs, which provides third-party engineering services in the electrostatic-discharge sector, expanded its business scope by adding an automated-test-equipment segment dubbed ClearTest ATE Services. The unit will operate as an outlet for fabless companies that lack the time, money and technical staff to build test solutions internally. It will use ATE platforms from Teradyne (the J750, Flex and Ultraflex), Verigy (93000) and Eagle (ETS-364).

"The complaint I hear about outside testing houses is that they overcommit and underdeliver," said John McCaffrey, new business development VP at ClearTest.

Materials and processes
Intermolecular's effort, meanwhile, is geared toward the development of semiconductor materials and processes.

Lazovsky, a former executive from Applied Materials Inc., founded Intermolecular in 2004. The company's business model is similar to that of Symyx Technologies Inc., which performs brute-force, or "high-throughput experimentation," methods for the discovery of breakthroughs in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and related fields.

Symyx, in fact, invested $13.5 million last year for a minority stake in Intermolecular. Symyx also licensed its patents to the startup.

Other investors in Intermolecular are CMEA Ventures, Redpoint Ventures and US Venture Partners.

Like Symyx, Intermolecular makes use of a massively parallel processing methodology to make a discovery. The intent is to combat the inefficiencies of traditional approaches to R&D.

"Economic considerations are playing a larger role in the semiconductor industry's R&D landscape than technical synergies are," Lazovsky said.

Intermolecular develops and sells the Tempus line of R&D equipment for fabs. The Tempus F20 is a materials-screening system; the F30 is a single-wafer wet-processing system.

The F30 fab-in-a-lab tool provides cleaning, electroless deposition, self-assembly and other functions in the same unit. The modular tool taps 28 separate screening models.

Intermolecular insists the tool will not replace a production machine but says it can be used by chipmakers to develop a process "10 to 100 times faster" than conventional methods.

For example, to develop its "molecular masking layer" IP technology, Intermolecular ran 7,635 experiments with 60 base molecular types in the F30. In a short time, the tool discovered two "hits," or matches, according to the company.

Going forward, Intermolecular is working on the development of PHY deposition and atomic-layer deposition tool programs. Applications would include the development of nonvolatile memories, high-k dielectrics and metal gates, and advanced interconnects.

Customers also have the option of developing processes or devices within Intermolecular's clean-room facilities, which house the company's own F20 and F30 systems, as well as third-party metrology and test systems.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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