01 Dec 2005
The Canadian government has invested C$43 million in building a compound semiconductor fabrication facility that it hopes will drive the growth of start-ups and small businesses. Richard Stevenson talks to the facility's director, Sylvain Charbonneau.
The opening of the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Center (CPFC) in Ottawa in May 2005 re-established III-V chip making in Canada, which has been absent since Bookham exported its production line to the UK in 2003.
According to the CPFC's director, Sylvain Charbonneau, the center will enable small- and medium-size enterprises and start-ups, both in Canada and overseas, to grow their business. "If you are just starting and need access to a III-V foundry service, unless you have a large amount of money it is difficult to make a prototype device," he said.
Although Canada is well known for its photonics technology, the loss of local III-V fabrication facilities in recent years has hampered the development of smaller firms. They have been unable to work with the larger fabs in the US, the UK and Asia, which are concentrating on their own products. The CPFC aims to help smaller companies and venture capitalists (VCs) to "de-risk" their investments, although any high-volume orders involving thousands of wafer starts per month would require a bigger foundry.
The CPFC has its own staff and equipment housed in 40,000 ft2 of lab and office space, as well as an 11,000 ft2 "class 100" and "class 1000" clean room. The facility has a multi-wafer MOCVD reactor that can produce InP- and GaAs-based epiwafers up to 6 inches in diameter, various deposition systems to produce silica and SiN layers, and lithography, metallization and etching equipment. The CPFC can dice or cleave wafers but it does not offer a packaging service.
"I want to stress that very little research is done in the CPFC. It's development or prototyping, and really manufacturing," said Charbonneau. He believes that research expertise would be lacking if it were not for the CPFC's strong link with the Institute of Microstructural Studies (IMS), of which he is also a director. The IMS has 20 years of experience in developing hardware for information technology, and numerous pieces of equipment are available to CPFC's engineers, including electron-beam apparatus for lithography, a secondary ion mass spectrometer, an Auger X-ray photoelectron spectrometer, and various electron microscopes.
The C$43 million ($36.4 million) funding from the province of Ontario and the Canadian government has been used to build the infrastructure and purchase equipment and consumables. "We were quite aggressive in taking advantage of other people's demise," admitted Charbonneau. Five years ago it would have cost more than C$150 million to build and equip the facility, but the CPFC was able to buy equipment at vastly reduced prices from the firms that exited chip production in the wake of the telecoms bust.
The CPFC has also benefited from hiring former Bookham and Nortel employees, says Charbonneau. He claims that this will enable the facility to distinguish itself from other competitors because these engineers know how to run a commercial fab, while those at IMS are motivated by academic publishing and pushing the frontiers of science. "That's all very nice, but the CPFC is not about that. It's there to push the product out, so you need a certain discipline. If the client needs a certain specification, and that specification is met, the wafer goes. I know you could do better, but that's not what the client is asking. That's the discipline I'm referring to."
As a not-for-profit organization, the CPFC recoups its operating costs by charging for foundry services and licensing its technology. Income also comes from CMC Microsystems, an organization that selects and funds the best proposals from Canadian universities that want devices to be fabricated at the CPFC. Carlton University, Ottawa, which has a strategic partnership with the CPFC, also has separate funding to grow prototype structures at the facility.
According to Charbonneau, the CPFC has also directed efforts at educating VCs about the role of the facility. He explained that many VCs were "burnt" when firms used their investment to build fabs. "The fabless model makes a lot more sense because VCs don't have to invest large quantities of money just to prove that the idea has commercial applications. With a few hundred thousand dollars you can find out whether the product will have traction with your customers."
Understandably, VC s are far less nervous about investing a few million dollars to develop a product at the CPFC, than investing tens of millions to construct a fab. According to Charbonneau, several million dollars of investment is enough for companies to produce their initial product, have it evaluated by their customers, and then refine it. Once the product has some customers, VCs are more generous with their money and can then fund the production ramp-up, using either CPFC's facilities or bigger foundries.
Although Charbonneau believes that the CPFC would have been beneficial five years ago, when many telecom-based start-ups were being launched, he thinks that it will be even more valuable now. "It's absolutely imperative that such facilities exist here for Canada to be competitive," he said. He added that there are still quite a few start-ups in Canada and the eastern US, as well as a growing number of small firms working in the environmental, health and energy sectors, that are potential customers. The CPFC's first three customers are developing solar cells, lasers for biomedical applications, and white-light emitters that avoid using GaN LED technology. Since opening, the facility has also produced 1310 nm VCSELs and dense wavelength division multiplexers.
The next few years will determine whether the CPFC can promote the growth of technology companies throughout Canada and return the country to the forefront of innovative photonic chip fabrication.