The Canadian Microelectronics Corp (CMC) is hoping to strengthen its role as a key research engine for national innovation and competitiveness. It has broadened its strategic direction to reflect the rapid convergence disciplines in which microchips and microsystems play a critical role. The re-focusing of the not-for-profit corporation includes a recommitment to university-based research as its primary mandate and a decision to actively pursue a wide range of stakeholders and new sources of funding.
That includes participation in a proposal to the Networks of Centres of Excellence led by the Univ of Alberta in the area of microfluidics to build micro platforms that interface with the nano world (see story below).
CMC’s updated strategic direction and its decision to become an enabler for a broad range of scientific disciplines were unveiled June 18th at its Symposium on Microelectronics R&D in Canada. CMC president and CEO Dr Brian Barge says the changes to the strategic vision are in response to the opportunities arising due to the rapidly changing nature of research.
“Microelectronics and microsystems are technologies that are now enabling a whole range of sectors — health, aerospace, automotive and others. So it’s natural that, as disciplines converge, CMC is in that domain and that funding sources would broaden,” says Barge. “Microsystems in health care and biohealth-related areas are coming at the speed of light. Microsystems are enabling and pervasive. Therefore the kind of impact the CMC has made, and will make, will continue if we are well positioned as to where the disciplines want to go. We need to make sure we’re underpinning science as we have in the past.”
Since 1999, CMC has nearly tripled in size and built up a formidable, leading-edge base of research infrastructure and launched two national research networks to assist in the design of microchips. The System-on-Chip Research Network and the National Microelectronics and Photonics Testing Collaboratory were both established with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Trust. They helped to inject nearly $40 million into CMC above and beyond $33 million over five years provided by its traditional funder — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).
CMC has determined that the best way to facilitate the convergence of research disciplines is to continue supporting university researchers and their students to produce highly qualified personnel (HQP). Barge says that CMC considered expanding its focus to include producing educational materials and and becoming more involved in commercialization. But after a thorough canvassing of its client base and collaborators, it decided to stick with what it does best.
“We’re going to be very focused on the research and be reactive to the educational component. We’re here first and foremost to support researchers . This is more fine tuning than a new direction,” he says “Research is becoming to costly and complex now, and researchers want to interact more effectively with others, so we’re going to strengthen our support for collaboration.”
A good example is a forthcoming workshop to be held at the Univ of Alberta in October, exploring the convergence of microsystems and nanotechnologies.
If CMC is to play an enhanced role in the national system of innovation, the amount and diversity of its funding will have to increase. As the worlds of microsystems and nanotechnology continue to converge, the cost of research to to develop new systems is escalating. And Canada’s lack of a fabrication facility to produce microchips and microsystems is becoming a serious impediment. The CMC discovered just how critical access to fabrication facilities when its surveyed its client base last year. When it asked researchers whether they preferred simulation or prototyping when designing new chips, the answer was overwhelming in support of testing actual examples made from a real manufacturing process.
“We don’t have a fab and we’re not going to have one in the near future. So what are we going to do to finance the way forward for researchers to have their chips made? This is an issue now that’s much larger than CMC or NSERC. It’s a national issue,” says Barge. “If you look at the convergence of disciplines, it’s going to effect how we proceed in biosciences and health care and elsewhere if we can’t make the real devices because of cost limitations. If we can’t afford it... downstream we face economic challenges because we will have missed again.”