Will write for Lobster…. Day One of Leti’s Annual Research Reviews

Take note everyone in charge of event planning: Léti really upped the ante last night at their Annual Research Reviews Gala event, held outside of Grenoble at the lovely Hotel Chavant.  While attendees sipped wine and socialized on the outdoor terrace under a green canopy of Chestnut trees adorned with twinkle lights, servers circulated a steady stream of French delicacies from Fois Gras, to Coquilles St. Jacques, assorted terrines and cheeses, and la pièce de la résistance, lobster-in-aspic canapés (toted around in fanfare, on a giant mirror with whole lobsters adorned with sparklers.) Dessert was a unique assortment of locally grown, melt-in-your-mouth strawberries, miniature ice cream bonbons and cotton candy……  But I digress; this day wasn’t only about the food (although it’s no secret that’s my favorite part). The gala was just the icing on the proverbial cake of a very robust program.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard an overall European perspective of the semiconductor industry.  So I feel fortunate to have been invited to Grenoble to attend this event. As I walked in the morning sunshine from my hotel, researchers on bicycles zoomed by, stopping only to pass through the secure entrance to the Minatec campus, home of CEA-Leti and a host of start-up companies. (R&D is serious business here, even in this picturesque city surrounded by the French Alps).  Day one was devoted to broad accomplishments and corporate visions, European initiatives, and more.

Dr. Laurent Malier, CEO of Leti, set the tone for the day with his discussion of Leti’s unique mission, recent accomplishments and challenges moving forward. He stressed the importance of research technology organizations (RTOs) in Europe.  “In a situation of intense competition for European industry, RTOs are key assets to be exploited.” he noted. Leti’s unique mission is to “create innovation and transfer it to industry” focusing on applied research projects funded together with industry partners.  The key challenge, says Malier, is making sure the research is relevant; there is no cause for research without the possibility of manufacturing. Likewise, there’s no manufacturing possible without strong R&D.   The semiconductor industry is very enabling for this mission, supporting Leti to go from technology development to applications. It extends to all economies.  This concept is extending beyond just Leti to the European Commission, which has launched a key initiative calling for R&D and manufacturing to work together more strongly as a strategy.   This will be presented in Brussels this week.

On the subject of Moore More vs. More than Moore, Malier says Leti’s position is that there is reason to support both.  “More than Moore” is not necessarily “rather than Moore.”  Both are critical to Europe and Leti intends to maintain strength positions in both.  As part of a worldwide alliance with IBM, Soitec, and ST Microelectronics, Leti is working on a project for 2D planar SOI technology as an alternative to FinFet technology, recently introduced by both Intel (Tri-gate technology) and TSMC.  Likewise, Leti has made a sizeable investment in 3D integration technologies including 3D wafer level packaging (WLP) and 3D ICs. With the opening of their 300mm line last January, the institute was the first in the wolrd to transfer image sensor processes to 300mm technology.

Malier says that to maintain a competitive edge, Leti understands the importance of exploring new frontiers.  Leti micro-devices are capturing “farest light”, to help scientists understand the formation of galaxies.  They’ve invested strongly in implanted medical device technologies, such as those to treat brain diseases. The goal is to procure less invasive, less aggressive treatments. To this end, Leti will open Clinatec in Q4 of 2011.  This unique facility will bring together technologists and clinitiancs to develop new processes for curing and diagnosing specific illnesses.  Malier explained that the facility will house an actual hospital and treat patients who are interested and qualify for experimental treatments.  The point being demonstrated is that Leti is committed to supporting industry, contributing to economic development, breaking limits for the benefit of society, through technology transfer, education, and facilitating start-up companies. “We tend to push strongly for the creation of start-ups in areas especially where there are no companies existing to support technologies.” He noted.  Follow-on presentations addressed such topics a availability of VC for semi start-ups; how the Europe semiconductor industry should proceed to achieve success in the global economy; the impact of public/private partnerships in Europe and key enabling technologies in Europe.

Jean Schmitt, of Jolttech, a funding company that merges technical start-ups to build critical mass companies, says that unfortunately, due largely to urban myths that are difficult to dispel, VC and private equity funding for semi start-ups is spinning down because the industry is viewed as too capital intensive and not appealing regarding exit strategies. This is creating a vicious circle where valuations of smaller companies are lower, leading to lowered innovation investments. However, semi start-ups that focus on energy applications, saving lives, and improved user interfaces are still appealing.

Offering his perspective on success for semiconductors in Europe, Tony King-Smith of Imagination, an IP company for design, advises that in this age of enlightened consumers, it’s critical to understand consumer trends, and not follow something that leads to a dead end. Also, he says that a global ecosystem is the future of semi, and that Europeans need to adapt their thinking in that direction. “There is no culture more global in its thinking than Europeans.  Our mentality fits well into global trading mentality,” noted Smith.  Gabriel Crean, Chairman, Sherpa Group, who will be presenting the group’s findings to the European commission, agrees with this, and recommends the EU adopt a globally competitive IP policy. Additionally, a single and fully fledged key emerging technology (KET) innovation policy at EU level is recommended to pass across  the “valley of death” from technology to market, with a “three pillars bridge” of technological research, product development,  and competitive manufacturing, including funding for infrastructure and pilot lines.  The group also recommend the EU apply a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale definition that includes technology research, prototype product development and demonstrator activities within R&D.   In short, it seems clear that Leti’s mantra “create innovation and transfer it to industry” is catching on an EU-wide scale.

That’s really only the tip of the iceberg of what’s been presented here this week, and D43D starts tomorrow.  Did I mention lunch?  The superb cuisine keeps coming, so be on the lookout for more coverage in between bites! — F.v.T