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Think fast – Goleta firm unleashes tiny systems

By   /   Friday, April 24th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Think fast – Goleta firm unleashes tiny systems

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For John Foster, thinking big means thinking small. Really small.

Foster heads Innovative Micro Technologies, a Goleta-based firm that makes machines the size of a few human hairs built with some of the same techniques and materials as computer chips.

Called micro electromechanical systems, or MEMS, the devices combine the “thinking” tasks of computer chips with physical components such as sensors, switches and even valves and pumps.

“A lot of the machines you can think of, we can miniaturize,” Foster said. “The amount of imagination people have used to make machines – we can use that same imagination, but make it smaller.”

IMT has about 80 employees at its Goleta facility, where it designs and builds its MEMS. It’s clients are much larger and run the technology gamut from drug maker Eli Lilly to Boeing and L3 Communications.

One of the newest frontiers in MEMS is in biology. IMT recently established a life sciences division to take advantage of it.

IMT has led the way in using MEMS to do things biologists had only dreamed about. In 2007, the company teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to publish a paper in the scientific journal Nature about a device it had built that could measure the mass of a single bacterium suspended in fluid.

Though scientists had devised ways to measure such small masses before, they couldn’t measure them in solutions because fluids dampened the vibrations that made the systems work, making practical applications like medical diagnostics impossible. IMT and MIT’s device got around that by holding the solution in microfluidic channels, and Nature’s editors singled out the paper’s findings as one of a handful of breakthroughs in 2007.

IMT is already making MEMS that can sort individual cells.

Here’s how they work: Scientists design a molecule that attaches to certain cells and will light up when hit with a laser. IMT’s device shines a laser on to the sample, and if a cell lights up, a system of tiny pumps and valves lets the cell through.

But the key is that IMT can make the devices cheap enough that they can be thrown away afterward. When working with samples of blood or bone marrow, using the same chip twice would contaminate samples. Foster said IMT is working toward using similar technology to design drug delivery systems.

“We’re so much faster and can do it at such lower cost that what you could do for millions now you could do for thousands,” Foster said.

But MEMS have uses far beyond biology, and the industry has been exploding. Applications that were only ideas when Foster started IMT nearly a decade ago – such as switching light with MEMS using tiny swinging mirrors – are now happening, in fiber-optic networking in the case of light switching. “Now it’s ubiquitous,” Foster said.

Though not necessarily made by IMT, MEMS have shown up in everything from the accelerometers that make Apple’s iPhone reorient its screen when the phone is tilted to the gyroscopes and accelerometers that help luxury cars grip slippery roads.

Foster can’t disclose who many of his customers are, but he predicts that MEMS could explode much like semiconductors.

“Semiconductors have so permeated our world that it’s just about like Star Trek,” Foster said. “If you go out 20 years, MEMs may be as ubiquitous as semiconductors are today.”

Speaking of Star Trek, today’s two-way flip phones – some of which contain MEMS – look an awful lot like early Star Trek communicators. Another Star Trek technology – a painless medicine injector that uses forced air to make a hole in the skin rather than a metal needle – could be made to today, Foster said.

“We can easily make air needs that can penetrate only a few microns and not hit nerves but still deliver the drugs,” Foster said.

But in the more immediate future, Foster said IMT hopes to be part of the “radically enhanced battery life revolution.” Devices such as mobile phones, Foster said, can be made to get much better battery life by using MEMS to aim their antennas more precisely.

IMT is poised to lead. Foster likes to show a slide listing all the ways in which IMT is No. 1 in the MEMS industry: It makes the most precise MEMS, the smallest MEMS, the most complicated MEMS, and leads in manufacturing. “I believe we’ve shipped 99 percent of the MEMS switches in the world,” Foster said.

At a semiconductor conference in San Francisco, no one challenged Foster’s assertions.

“I showed the slide and all the Bosches and Texas Instruments – none of them stood up and said, ‘Take that off,” Foster said. “I dared them to, in a friendly way.”

But despite the company’s leadership, Foster is navigating a choppy economy carefully.

“The great news is that we’re a profitable corporation, and we’re maintaining that through this calamity and we’re not seeing a drop in business,” Foster said, adding that the firm has lost “only a couple” of customers.

The bad news: “We have some customers who are in a funding trap. They might have been a young startup, they had an idea and we were helping them bring it to fruition, and they’re now having a tough time.”

Like any business in a downturn, IMT is focusing on making sure its customers are happy. And Foster is still hiring.

“We’re hiring all the way from the technician level to the Ph D. scientific and engineering level,” Foster said. “We’re not hiring a lot, but we’re hiring.”

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