Sandia LabNews

Four-state microsystems 'cluster of clusters' proposed

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SANDIA RESEARCHERS, from left, Frank Peter, Larry Dalton, and David Plummer pore over plans for the the Recodable Locking Device they developed. The microlock, which was a Discover Award finalist in 1999, is the "world’s smallest locking device" that uses microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology. The three are representative of the kind of expertise and creative application of technology that Sandia brings to the initiative to establish the Southwest as a region of innovation. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Nearly 300 researchers and entrepreneurs gathered in Albuquerque to hear the case for establishing an industrial "cluster of clusters" that will energize communication and cooperation between microsystems specialists in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. The occasion was the second Southwest as a Region of Innovation conference, held at Albuquerque’s Convention Center on June 27.

In this context, a "cluster" is a regional grouping of organizations that share common interests, of which the best-known is Silicon Valley. A number of relatively small clusters interested in microsystems exists in the "Four Corners" states.

"The conference was outstanding," says Al Romig, VP for Science, Technology, and Components (1000). "All the feedback was very positive. There was a lot of energy, a lot of people who wanted to see the idea go forward. When we went into the program I hoped that we would be able to build a sense of synergy among the people from the region. And that’s what I did get, a sense of synergy, something that I thought was very special. At the end of the conference, when we asked for people to move the concept forward, it was wonderful to have executives from companies like Intel and Wells Fargo stand up and volunteer. We could have next year’s conference in any one of the four states.

"Now I think there’s momentum. And now we’re going to have to work on it. We must make sure that the concept is perpetuated and enhanced."

"We thought it was a very good conference in that it identified cluster analysis as an important concept," says Bill Garcia, Intel’s New Mexico Group Manager for Public Affairs. "We think that continued emphasis and recognition of the importance of that kind of economic model is important to New Mexico. And the meeting illustrated the significance of Sandia in the overall equation of technology as an economic development factor."

Last year’s inaugural edition addressed microelectronics, optoelectronics, biomedical/biotechnology, information technology, materials, and energy. This year focused on application of those technologies to the fields of biomedicine, biotechnology, and telecommunications.

Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca welcomed the conference, saying the city has "always been a strong focus for innovation, and Sandia National Laboratories, the University of New Mexico (UNM), the Air Force Research Labs, and Kirtland Air Force Base are the institutions that make the city what it is today.

"I’m pleased that leaders of industry and research have come together this past year to partner in building cutting-edge cluster development to move our technology-based economy into the future," he said. "We are especially excited about the proposed microsystems industry cluster as a forerunner for strategic growth." The conference was cosponsored by DOE, Sandia, the city, UNM, and Intel.

"Our goal is to create a regional leadership team that will make the Southwest the center of new microsystems industry clusters," said conference organizer Jackie Kerby Moore. "We hope to create a shared vision of the microsystems industry cluster, which would include identifying the roles and responsibilities needed to bring that vision to reality."

Moore is currently on loan from Sandia to Technology Ventures Corporation as project manager for development of the Sandia Science and Technology Park just outside the Eubank gate northeast of the Labs’ site.

Last year’s conference grew out of realization that although industries built around integrated microsystems are already taking shape, they are not gathering in any central location. Conference planners thought to develop the Southwest — Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah — as the center of that emerging industry group.

"The goal is to get beyond competition and, instead, find ways to exploit the synergy created in the clusters of a ‘sticky’ region," said Al. "That will be a major factor in building momentum for regional economic activity."

A "sticky" region is one that attracts clusters of related and/or like enterprises. There is room for individuality and competition, but the regions and their clusters benefit by joining forces at the points where their common interests intersect.

"It might be even more appropriate to call this a ‘cluster of clusters,'" Al said. "In this region, Tucson is a center of work in optics, Utah has become a center of biotechnology, and Phoenix, Albuquerque, and parts of Colorado are centers of microelectronics, and Albuquerque offers additional expertise in opto-microelectronics," he said. "Sandia specifically has expertise in microelectronics and in the broader area of MEMS (microelectromechanical systems)."

Paul Fleury, dean of engineering at the University of New Mexico and a former research VP at Sandia, said he views microsystems as key to the future of innovation in the US.

"We have a variety of microtechnology-related programs at UNM. The university feels a responsibility to contribute to the economic development of the region by working with industry to deliver real value from these programs," he said.

"Microtechnology is an area in which we and Sandia both have critical core competencies, and since we both believe this fundamental technology will drive economic development, we have common interests in seeing that development centered in the Southwest."

"In planning last year’s start to this effort, we looked at microsystems in the context of industries that have come to maturity in the past — aerospace in the ’50s, computers in the ’60s, PCs and semiconductors in the ’70s — and we could demonstrate that they concentrated in general areas," said Jackie. "And we thought, ‘It doesn’t have to be Boston’s Route 128 or Silicon Valley; it can be the Southwest.'"

Last modified: July 18, 2000