Sandia LabNews

Sandia spin-off company to commercialize Labs-developed microsystems technology

VP Al Romig calls MEMX a ‘bold and important move’

In what VP 1000 Al Romig calls a "bold and important move," Sandia has spun off a private company, MEMX, Inc., to commercialize Labs-developed microsystems technology.

Paul McWhorter, formerly Deputy Director of Center 1700 and longtime champion of Sandia’s microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) program, along with Jeff Sniegowski, Sam Miller, and Steve Rogers (all 1749) have agreed to join this private venture.

"This step is important for the commercialization of MEMS and fits in with Sandia’s primary mission — national security," Al says. "We believe commercialization of our MEMS technology is critical for us to achieve our national security mission. National security decision makers are conservative. They want to see the technology widely used in applications like cars or television before they consider it for weapons. Getting the technology out of the labs and into commercial applications will give us the confidence needed to deploy it in critical defense applications."

Sandia executives Al Romig, Lenny Martinez, and David Williams may soon be "fathers" of a new microsystems industry in the Albuquerque area that promises to bring thousands of high-paying jobs to New Mexico. 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. Read related story: "Sandia joins Next Generation Economy Initiative to establish new microsystems industry"

David Williams, Director of Microsystems Science, Technology, and Components Center 1700, says MEMX will be the "cornerstone" of the new microsystems industry that Sandia and others are striving to create (see story, page 4). One of the first steps is to have a company, like MEMX, commercialize the Labs’ MEMS technology.

"Commercialization of any emerging disruptive technology is a challenge," David says. "We believe that small and entrepreneurial companies are key to getting the technology into widespread applications. MEMX will play a critical role in achieving this objective."

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MEMX SPINS OFF — Four Sandia researchers have agreed to join a private spin-off company, MEMX, Inc., to commercialize Labs-developed microsystems technology. They are, from left, Paul McWhorter, Sam Miller, Jeff Sniegowski, and Steve Rogers. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

MEMX will initially focus on producing optical switches for the telecommunications industry based on Sandia’s surface micromachine technology, SUMMiT V, an advanced five-level polysilicon surface micromachining process that produces more reliable and complex MEMS devices.

Paul, who joins MEMX as its chief technical officer, anticipates considerable interest in the optical switches due largely to the explosion in demand for bandwidth created by the Internet.

"Optical switching applications are a driving force in the MEMS arena right now," Paul says. "We believe Sandia’s SUMMiT V technology is ideal for meeting not only today’s need for high-performance optical switches, but will meet the needs of next-generation higher performance systems."

He predicts that growth in demand for e-commerce and multimedia applications over the Internet will continue for at least the next 20 years. Companies such as Lucent, Nortel, Cisco, Marconi, and Corning are all racing to achieve optical routers and other optical switch systems to meet this demand.

"A key challenge is that traditional techniques for performing optical switching can’t keep up with the explosion in demand," he says. "Optical switches are presently the ‘speed bumps’ on the information superhighway."

Significant progress has been made in increasing the amount of data that can be pushed down a fiber; the amount of data that can be transferred is doubling every eight months. Switching this data is traditionally done by converting the optical signals to electrical signals, switching them electronically, and then converting them back to optical signals.

The fundamental limitation to it is that the electronic switches required in today’s systems destroy the wide bandwidth advantage of the optical fiber. Optical switches eliminate this problem.

"Because they are batch-fabricated using standard integrated circuit manufacturing techniques, MEMS offer an affordable technique for creating large arrays of high-performance mirrors on a single silicon chip," Paul says. "Standard switches used in fiber optics can cost up to $1,000 per channel. If you need 1,000 channels, the cost is $1 million. Using the MEMS technology, you can put 1,000 mirrors on one chip, which can be built for just a few dollars."

MEMX has licensed Sandia’s unique intellectual property, and company founders plan to advance the technology aggressively.

While the initial focus of the company will be on optical switching, Paul says the company will broaden its product line later. He anticipates "a lot of growth in the first year." The company is also expected to be not only a supplier of commercial technology, but also a potential supplier back to Sandia for national security applications.

MEMX will be headquarted in Albuquerque. The company will use manufacturing facilities at Sandia’s Microelectronics Development Laboratory (MDL) to produce its first prototype, but will quickly build its own fabrication facility.

MEMX was organized by TMA Ventures, of Denver, an enterprise specializing in commercializing high technology. Sherman McCorkle, president of Technology Ventures Corporation, also played an instrumental role in the founding of the company. Angelo Salamone of Partnering and Licensing Dept. 1321, Gerald Grafe and John Hohimer of Patent and Licensing Dept. 11500, and Jay Jakubczak of Intelligent Micromachines Dept. 1749 negotiated the license with MEMX.

Paul says that although starting up the new company means he and the other three researchers will no longer be working directly for Sandia, they don’t feel like they are leaving the Labs.

"We’ll still be around, just in a different capacity," he says. "We view ourselves as a private arm of Sandia here to help the Labs meets its mission. I am convinced that by taking this step we will be able to have an even greater positive impact on Sandia’s long-term vision for this technology."

Last modified: Oct. 9, 2000