Oregon-based specialty fab takes different approach.
Venturing into the MEMS manufacturing market is a shaky proposition. The investment is high, the returns are questionable, and the competition can be fierce.
Rogue Valley Microdevices is one of a handful of pure-play MEMS foundries in the United States, a difficult market divided into two distinct parts. One on side are a handful of higher-margin new technologies, such as piezoelectric microphones, and on the other side are commodity devices such as pressure sensors and gyroscopes, where the main competitive weapon is price.
Jessica Gomez, CEO of Rogue Valley Micro, said the big challenge was figuring out how to address this market profitably. Her first company, Standard Microsystems, attempted to move from semiconductors to MEMS, but that turned out to be more difficult than anyone expected. From there she was recruited to Xponent Photonics (later acquired by Hoya Corp.) to develop all-optical switches. That didn’t work so well, either, so instead the fab began offering services such as deep reactive-ion etch and thin films to universities.
“That was successful,” she said. “We had nine people and were cash flow positive. They ended up shutting that down, but while there we developed a business model for Rogue Valley Micro. We took home files, separated out which equipment made money and which didn’t. And luckily, to get out of the lease, the previous company left their clean room equipment. We took the clean room, but in a zero-dollar bid, and drove it up to Medford.”
That was 2003. After that, the company began working on small projects and building its team. In 2008, when the recession hit, it nearly wiped out the company. Rogue Valley Micro limped by, shifting its focus to the intersection of biotech and MEMS when the economy recovered. So while technically not a startup, the company made a radical shift in its business model.
“What finally worked was MEMS technology and manufacturing married with biotech,” she said. “There are all kinds of different applications for medical, from glucose monitoring to protein analysis and different types of assays. We’re working on a chip that is going to be inserted into the brain to change brain waves for patients with Parkinson’s Disease. The challenge is figuring out how to create repeatable manufacturing processes.”
The company also is experimenting with manufacturing of graphene-based devices, which is still a research project, and chips used in LiDAR and IoT. But it is custom 200mm MEMS manufacturing and wafer services are at the core.
Rogue Valley Micro also has emerged as one of the rising stars in SEMI’s effort to improve the reach of women in technology. “Our No. 1 problem is a talent shortage,” said Ajit Manocha, president and CEO of SEMI. “The semiconductor industry has done very well. We’re now at about $430 billion, and some of the pundits predict this industry will reach $1 trillion by 2030. But the shortage of talent will become a big challenge. Japan, China and Korea are adding engineers, but in the United States, STEM education has decreased by a factor of two in the last 20 years. We need a lot more mentoring of women and we need role models like Jessica Gomez. We need to shine a spotlight on women who are successful.”
Ed Sperling is the editor in chief of Semiconductor Engineering.
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