By Chris Burroughs
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They are working with officials from the City of Albuquerque, University of New Mexico (UNM), Air Force Research Laboratory, and private industry to make central New Mexico the next Silicon Valley.
"We are on the brink of a new era and Sandia is leading the way," says David Williams, Director of Microsystems Science, Technology, and Components Center 1700. "We expect the microsystems industry to start up within the next two years. And in five to 10 years we will see a number of dedicated microsystems companies employing thousands of people."
Why are David and the others so optimistic?
They are part of a public-private endeavor, called the Next Generation Economy Initiative, that is Albuquerque's attempt to jump-start the local economy and convert it into a technical goldmine.
The Next Generation Economy Initiative identifies six existing and emerging industry clusters in central New Mexico that have the greatest potential to drive the economy into the new century. Clusters are geographic concentrations of industries and the private and public institutions that support them, such as universities, national laboratories, financial institutions, workforce development programs, and governments. The initiative's goal is to grow each cluster to its fullest economic potential.
The microsystems cross-cluster initiative, which is being spearheaded by Sandia, is a hybrid of four of the clusters -- microelectronics, optics, photonics, biomed/biotech, and information technology.
Microsystems are devices smaller than the width of a human hair built on silicon wafers using standard integrated circuit manufacturing. Batch-produced and inexpensive to make, they contain microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) -- tiny machines or sets of gears that can perform actions -- and microelectronics. MEMS are found in a variety of commercial products including car air bags, printer heads, and display devices. They can also include sensors and optical or wireless communication devices.
Sandia is promoting the new industry for the purpose of achieving the Labs' national security mission, says Al Romig, VP of Div. 1000 and Sandia's Chief Technical Officer.
"Microsystems are a promising technology for nuclear weapons and other critical systems," Al says. "But before we can use MEMS and microsystems in these critical systems, it must be shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are suitable. The best way to demonstrate reliability is to commercialize them and use them in everyday consumable goods -- like televisions and automobiles. After years of demonstrating reliability, microsystems will be ready to go into critical systems."
Paul McWhorter, former Deputy Director for Center 1700 who is joining three other Labs researchers to "spin-off" Sandia microsystems technology (see article on page one), saw the new technology as a way to further use integrated circuit fabrication techniques. Over the past eight years, Paul says, MEMS have "migrated from being some work done off to the side to being an important core mission of the Labs."
"This is all part of the plan," Paul says. "Sandia has been looking to do this for a long time and just recently the opportunity came along. We plan to become the cornerstone of central New Mexico's microsystems cluster."
Joining forces with Sandia to create the new microsystems industry are UNM's School of Engineering and its Anderson Schools of Management, City of Albuquerque, Air Force Research Laboratory, and community leaders like Larry Willard, CEO of Wells Fargo Bank/New Mexico; Dave Durgin, president and CEO of Quatro; and Sherman McCorkle, president of Technology Ventures Corporation. All are partners in the Next Generation Economy Initiative.
"It's a united effort that involves all of us," says Lenny Martinez, VP of Div. 14000 and member of the Next Generation board of directors. "We are sitting on the front end of a lot of potential." He notes that central New Mexico is the place for this to happen because of the resources here -- Sandia with its expertise in MEMS, UNM which is training future microsystems engineers, and the Air Force Research Laboratory which uses MEMS in optical laser applications. Already here are several small- and large-size high-tech companies with interests in microsystems.
Also, the Sandia Science and Technology Park, located just outside Kirtland Air Force Base and minutes from Sandia, will be able to provide facilities and high-tech telecommunications infrastructure needed to support microsystems companies.
The next step in the creation of a new microsystems industry is the completion of a business plan. The plan is being written by Sul Kassicieh, chair of the Finance, International, and Technology Department in UNM's Anderson Schools of Management, and Steve Walsh, director of UNM's Technological Entrepreneurship Program. The plan was requested by a microsystems cluster steering committee, which focuses on integration with other clusters. Committee members include UNM School of Engineering Dean Paul Fleury, Air Force Research Laboratory Director Christine Anderson, Dave Durgan of Quatro, Al Romig, and Dave Williams. Other advisory groups will be formed later.
After that, the goal is to partner with a private sector counterpart -- possibly an entity created specifically to develop the microsystems industry -- to build a microsystems fabrication plant that would develop and create products for new microsystems companies coming into the area.
Once the foundry exists, Lenny predicts spin-off activity, new businesses, and expanded markets to take root. "And that will lead to the establishment of a true microsystems industry in central New Mexico with the high-paying jobs and strong economy that goes with it," he says.
Last modified: Oct. 9, 2000
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