SemiWiki has covered many aspects of Silicon Catalyst, from their business model to notable industry events and profiles of promising startups. You can get some perspective on the breadth and depth of Silicon Catalyst here. In this post, I’ll explore an aspect of the broader collaboration the organization is engaging in. It is well-known that Silicon Catalyst maintains a substantial network of product and service providers as well as a large network of advisors. All this is intended to help promising young semiconductor-based startups to take their idea to the next level. There is another aspect of the innovation pipeline, however. It’s the journey from a great idea to proof that it’s possible to implement. Through added collaboration, Silicon Catalyst is addressing this phase as well. Their work is having measurable impact for promising young companies. Read on see how Silicon Catalyst and Cornell University are expanding opportunities for startups like Geegah.
The Next Big Thing begins with an idea – perhaps not even an idea but a dream. I am a firm believer that the dreamers among us are the ones who will change the world. As an idea progresses to a commercial implementation, there are many hurdles to cross. For a semiconductor startup a lot of these hurdles have to do with access to technology, services, infrastructure, and design tools. These are all areas where Silicon Catalyst brings a lot to the party.
Let’s get back to that dream of an idea. If someone is dreaming of a new application for semiconductor technology, the first step needs to be a reality check. Can the idea be implemented with current materials and fabrication techniques? Or perhaps something over the next horizon will be required. Answers to these questions often require fundamental research, but ultimately the new idea needs to address real world problems to build a viable business. This is an expanding area of Silicon Catalyst’s ecosystem, working with university partners to find the next great innovation for the semiconductor industry. More on this in a moment.
I had the opportunity to speak with several folks that are part of the expanded Silicon Catalyst ecosystem. Some represent the university research point of view and others the licensing of that research. Still others ensure the many moving parts of these relationships continue to work smoothly. And of course, there’s the growing list of startups who are the primary beneficiaries of all this work.
Collaboration between Silicon Catalyst and universities isn’t new. There is an ongoing program that connects universities with the Silicon Catalyst ecosystem and you can learn about it here. One of the folks I spoke with is Laura Swan. Laura manages the university program at Silicon Catalyst. One of the key benefits of this program is to connect Silicon Catalyst’s large advisor network with research work at partner universities. Universities must focus on the viability of their research from a commercial standpoint and the Silicon Catalyst advisor network is full of folks who can help with market discovery and validation of the innovations. This organization can help search for early-adopters and build a foundation for ultimate business success. This is one of many win/win scenarios that are part of this story.
Cornell University’s Praxis Center for Venture Development
Cornell University is a member of the Silicon Catalyst University Program. Recall I mentioned that semiconductor startups often require fundamental research to establish the efficacy of an idea. This kind of research requires materials and physics expertise as well as the environment and equipment to experiment with new materials to see what happens when you build it. Cornell brings a lot to the table here – they operate a semiconductor research fab, the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility, or CNF.
The organization at Cornell that has developed a partnership with Silicon Catalyst is the Cornell Praxis Center for Venture Development. This is Cornell’s on-campus incubator for engineering, digital and physical science startups. The program is run by Robert Scharf and Bob is one of the folks I got a chance to speak with. One of the first things Bob pointed out was the proximity of Cornell’s fab facility – it’s in the same building as the Praxis Center, so access to equipment and know-how couldn’t be easier. Bob described a process whereby startup companies are evaluated for admission to the Praxis Center. This in many ways is similar to what Silicon Catalyst does, as part of their comprehensive applicant screening process.
Bob explained that entrants to Praxis can be very early in the maturation process – one click past “will it work?” if you will. Early results and fundamental research are focus areas for Cornell, and many other universities as well. Bob went on explain that, as startups mature, they can physically grow to a size that is hard to accommodate on campus at the Praxis Center. This is where Silicon Catalyst has formed a seamless fit for the startup as they continue their journey. The graphic at the top of this post illustrates this process.
Before I discuss a promising new startup that is benefiting from all this collaboration, I’ll finish the picture for Praxis. To do this I spoke with Alice Li, the executive director of Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing (CTL). As you will see if you visit its website, CTL supports inventors, industry, entrepreneurs and academia. Regarding entrepreneurs, their stated goal is this:
We work to create successful transitions from innovation to new enterprise
Licensing technology developed at Cornell turns out to be a two-way street. Certainly, startups benefit from access to cutting-edge research to create the foundation of a new enterprise.
Cornell also benefits from the “grounding” that occurs when one attempts to apply fundamental research in a commercial setting. Alice explained that this process provides an important reality check for advanced research. After all, the goal of this work is to impact the world in a positive way and understanding what is relevant to that goal is a very important ingredient. Yet another win/win was discovered during my discussions with Alice.
Geegah – a Promising Startup and Beneficiary
To complete the story, I spoke with Amit Lal. He is the Robert M. Scharf 1977 Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell. He’s also the director of the SonicMEMS Laboratory there, which focuses on micromachining technologies for making ultrasonic transducers for ultrasonic applications.
Professor Lal made an important breakthrough. He and his students came up with a way of post-processing a CMOS layer with piezoelectric films to create ultrasonic waves to deliver high-resolution, precision imaging. The resultant small, gigahertz-frequency waves have many potential applications—from chip security to acoustic storage of computer memory, ultrasonic imaging, and ultrasonic analog computing.
Amit and his student Justin Kuo have created a new company, Geegah, to commercialize the technology. There are many potential applications. We discussed a couple. First is chip security. Consider the reverse engineering liability associated with a chip that has metal interconnect. Now consider the same device that implements on-chip communication with ultrasonic waves. There are no signal paths to observe (or copy), making chip copying difficult, if not impossible.
The imaging capability has significant applications as well. One that caught my attention has to do with agriculture. It turns out there are very small worms, called nematodes that eat plant roots. Sensing their presence, so they can be controlled is virtually impossible with today’s technology – it’s difficult to “see” inside of soil. The sensors being developed by Geegah can do this quite accurately, however. The implications on the worldwide food supply / agriscience markets are significant and can make farmer’s lives more predictable. Similar to the problem of not being able to see nematodes in soil is the problem of not being able to see viruses in one’s breath. Geegah is now extending the technology to enable imaging of viruses. This capability is not only needed for COVID-like viruses, but for many other body infections as well.
Geegah was born out of the fundamental research at Cornell under the guidance of Professor Lai. The company is now also a member of the Silicon Catalyst incubator. The combined resources of both Praxis and Silicon Catalyst should have a significant and positive impact on the trajectory of this promising new startup. Geegah has access to the Cornell cleanroom to extend the technology to commercial levels, while it also has access to an extended network of silicon commercialization experts via Silicon Catalyst.
In conclusion, fundamental university-based research continues to be a valuable resource to drive the next generation of semiconductor solutions to benefit our industry and ultimately our lives. The Cornell Praxis and CTL collaboration with Silicon Catalyst and Geegah provides a great example of this value. Laura Swan and her team are looking to further expand university collaboration and would welcome contact with other academic institutions and researchers to learn more. Post docs in search of a path to commercialization should consider applying to the Silicon Catalyst Incubator, as the deadline for the next application review cycle is July 2, 2021.
So, there’s the summary of how Silicon Catalyst and Cornell University are expanding opportunities for startups like Geegah. Another win/win for each of these organizations and potentially a big win for our industry.